Insight: What ever happened to France's voice in Europe?

Wed Apr 24, 2013 3:12am EDT
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By Luke Baker and Mark John

BRUSSELS/PARIS (Reuters) - A few hours after midnight one Sunday last month, as negotiations over a rescue for Cyprus dragged into a second day, French Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici fell asleep.

Most euro zone ministers in Brussels that night failed to notice, continuing to pore over the details of the multi-billion-euro deal. It fell to Christine Lagarde, French director of the International Monetary Fund, to approach Moscovici and nudge him awake, according to witnesses at the March 24 talks.

The sight of the IMF head waking up France's top finance official in a crisis meeting neatly illustrates a question that is troubling European diplomats: what has happened to France's voice in Europe?

For decades France has been central to the European project that was born out of World War Two and now reaches from Europe's Atlantic coast to beyond the former Iron Curtain.

Straddling north and south, France has a unique perspective on Europe. It is the European Union's largest economy after Germany. One of six founders of the original European coal and steel community in 1951, it has shaped and often led, the institutions that make the EU tick.

The readiness of successive French and German leaders to work together has for decades created a consensus among two former enemies that has steered Europe through crisis and change - from the end of the Cold War and Germany's reunification, to the expansion of the EU to the east and the introduction of the single European currency in 1999.

For much of the past four years, during which the euro zone was nearly torn apart by a debt crisis, the Franco-German axis has held true. But in the past six months, questions have arisen about what France is offering in terms of fresh ideas, and how it is dealing with the rest of Europe.

"You can see a shrinking presence, a progressive disappearance of France on most issues that concern the economic agenda," said Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a Brussels think tank.   Continued...

France's President Francois Hollande studies his notes before appearing on France 2 television prime time news broadcast for an interview at their studios in Paris, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool