France does not face any direct enemy. It enjoys major influence within the European Union. It has a unique relationship with the US – close enough to be taken seriously, and yet far enough not to be taken for granted.
Although France is at the core of the Western camp, it has maintained a smart, strategic position vis-à-vis the rising global power, China, and has been consistently mindful of what French writer Simone de Beauvoir called la force de choses, or the power of circumstances.
France’s economy is strong. Inflation often bites; youth unemployment is a problem; and several sectors need major reforms. However, the foundations of the economy are solid. Its industry is competitive, including vis-à-vis the rising Asian economies. Its educational system remains extremely successful at producing world-class talent in both science and technology and in the arts and humanities.
Yet, France is restless, for it correctly sees major changes on the horizon.
The first change concerns Europe’s security. France knows that the order that has prevailed since the end of the Cold War has collapsed and that for a few years now we have been in a transition towards an emerging new global order.
In this new order, the US will not rule supreme. China is widening its presence in the world, and its influence transcends economics and extends to politics. Russia is attempting to resuscitate features of the former Soviet Union by different forms of force, and the West is far from being the economic and technological global hegemon it was in decades (and centuries) past.
This emerging new order imposes acute challenges not only on Europe’s security, but also on its living standards, relationships with its neighbours, and its view of itself.
In turn, these challenges impose a crucial question on France. Is France fully committed to the European project in its fundamental premises and true end of political unity on the European continent? Or does France want only a trading union of closely coordinated members with intimate cultural affiliations?
The more the challenges intensify, the more the nature and ultimate goal of the European Union will need to be stated clearly and followed through in practice. Given its size, wealth, and political weight, France will have to put forward views and answers. This will be one of the most important responsibilities of the resident of the Elysée Palace, the French president’s official residence, over the next few years.
The second change on the horizon is increasing social inequality, where developments inside and outside France will impose difficult questions on the country.
Emerging from the global Covid-19 pandemic, still reeling from the lasting effects of the world financial crisis, and with rising levels of national debt across Europe, almost all of the continent’s economies will undergo a period of challenge and perhaps adjustment.
Technology will exacerbate the situation. This is because many jobs that were lost in the past decade will not come back. The gig economy is here to stay, and many people previously in social segments that saw themselves as only customers of the gig economy will become also workers in it.
Wealth creation will become even more skewed than it was in the past few decades. Social mobility will become slower, especially as the standards of living of the middle classes in most European countries will decline.
This will impose a responsibility and a question on France. The next French president and government will need to devise policies that lessen the impacts of these coming strong winds on the country’s economy and society. This will heighten the need for some sectoral and social reforms and will require serious, intelligent, and credible leadership.
The question that these economic and technological changes imposes links back to France’s relationship with Europe. Because of its relatively strong economic position, France will be tempted to distance itself from those in Europe whose economic conditions and levels of competitiveness, and therefore future prospects, are challenging.
There will be voices invoking the idea of a two- (or three-) tier Europe, seeing benefits in a cluster of rich European countries, as opposed to others who will certainly suffer from the coming problems. In this situation, will France choose to commit and work towards the EU’s ultimate goals? Or will it decide that the difficulties on the horizon necessitate a transformation of the EU?
This leads us to the third change France faces. Amidst the threats and challenges, there’s the seduction of escaping, in the mind, to an imagined past anchored on stability and tranquility and when supposedly there were no acute problems and difficult questions.
Escapism to such a comfortable mental fantasy is an extremely powerful psychological strategy, particularly when people are afraid or traumatised. Today, many people in the West are fearful of the coming changes. If indeed these approaching changes result in economic traumas (not necessarily in France, but in its immediate neighbourhood), we can expect more and more people, within and outside France, to retreat into fantasies.
Fantasies call for comfort, which calls for conformity. In France, this means reducing the most palpable feature of difference in society – Arabs and Muslims – whose otherness, in the minds of many, is cultural and civilisational. Of course, this difference has for centuries been a source of fascination, enchantment, and enrichment in the French psyche. However, often it has also been a feature of differentiation, defining for many in France what it is not.
However, I doubt that this escapism will take hold of large segments of French society. France has often in its long history toyed with hard-headed dogmas anchored on narrow definitions of what France means and constitutes. But French culture and identity, rich, adventurous, refined, and, crucially, confident, has repeatedly prevented brief flights into fantasy from becoming falls into fanaticism. France has repeatedly stood confidently against anything narrow-minded within its own people, baring its beauty as both a source of guidance and reprimand.
The country’s exquisite beauty, commanding stance, and loud voice of its marvelous culture has been an antidote to the poison that often seeps into the veins of the fearful. Nevertheless, it will be a difficult and probably long cultural fight within society before the true soul of France vanquishes fear and resentment. This fight will put another major responsibility on the shoulders of France’s leaders in the coming years.
Many in France today look around them and see in their neighbourhood and beyond landscapes that have been subjected to devastation over the past decade. They sense the coming winds. Many know that their house has strong foundations, but inside that house there are still some who are afraid, their eyes moving between beauty and refinement and the shadows they see growing larger and appearing to be ever closer.
Amidst the looming challenges and the questions they impose, France’s answers will be highly consequential for its experiences over the coming few years, as well as for Europe’s shape and place in the emerging new global order.
The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 14 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.