Vive la France, the pivotal country that has most shaped Europe for the last 1,500 years. France, not Germany, nor the United Kingdom, is Europe’s most geopolitically important country. Thus it has always been, with only the brief exception of German dominance from 1871 to 1945.
This is why what happens in the upcoming French elections is important. It is for good reason that The Economist characterized the French elections as “the next revolution,” because what happens in France always reverberates throughout Europe: “France has shaken the world before. It could do so again.”
The role of France in Europe, as well as its geopolitical importance, is all too often minimized in favor of Germany. Government officials, scholars, and journalists throughout the West frequently call for Germany to play a greater role in global affairs. For example, the Financial Times, echoing this widely held view, recently editorialized that “Germany is rich, and it commands worldwide respect for its liberal values. It needs to be more imaginative, independent, and outward facing in its foreign policy.”
But Germany is hampered from playing the role envisioned for it by many factors: location, demographics, lack of strategic will and military prowess, and want of overall global influence.
Likewise, in some ways, Britain is as important a country as France: London remains the most important city in the world, and British culture, language, law, and institutions are globally dominant in a way unmatched by France. Yet much of Britain’s legacy has been passed on to former colonies (the United States, India, etc.) that now play a larger geopolitical role than it does. Britain’s military simply cannot project force around the world as it used to. But France remains a major geopolitical player, in both Europe and the world.
To understand why, we have to turn to history, geography, and the factors that prevent Germany from playing a greater geopolitical role in the world.
To start with, while Germany has a more central location in Europe, France’s size and location place it, and not Germany, between all the major population and economic centers in Europe: the British Isles, the Low Countries, Germany, Italy, and the Iberian Peninsula. France has a long coastline on both the Mediterranean and Atlantic bodies of water. This enables it to project power beyond Europe, toward the Americas (as in the 17th and 18th centuries) or toward Africa, the Middle East, and Asia (in the 19th and 20th centuries). As Stratfor points out,
Only France is both a Northern and Southern European power. It is the only European power—despite its seeming isolation near the Continent’s western end—that can attempt to project power in any portion of the European theater.
Stratfor also explains that France’s rivers give it rich agricultural potential and access to trade:
In comparison with its continental neighbors, France has almost always been at an economic advantage because of its geography. Germany has relatively poor agricultural land and paltry access to the Baltic Sea and is blocked from the Atlantic by the British Isles. Italy has the fertile Po valley but is blocked by the Alps to the north and trapped inside the Mediterranean. Spain suffers from mountainous terrain, poor agricultural land and relatively useless rivers. Russia lacks reliable maritime access altogether as well as a reasonable climate.
The country that became modern France emerged with these advantages. The French date the foundation of their state back to the conversion of Clovis, king of the Franks, to Christianity in AD 496; France has in some form or the other existed continuously since then. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, France was the grain out of which Western civilization grew; France’s Catholicism, feudalism, and chivalric modes were replicated by the newly emerging Christian kingdoms of Western Europe, especially after the expansion of Charlemagne, and its language served as the lingua franca of its elites until a century ago.
France spread and expanded Western civilization, which was then confined to a narrow strip stretching from Italy through Britain, by rolling back various Germanic tribes and checking the expanse of Muslim power out of Spain. “By 1350, twelve of the fifteen monarchs of Latin Christendom … were of Frankish descent.” France was so identified with Western civilization that Muslim commentators referred to Europeans until recently as Faranj. This trend of French power and culture dominating Europe continued for centuries, indeed, until the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany in 1871. This was the case in the High Middle Ages:
When the 14th century opened, France was supreme. Her superiority in chivalry, learning, and Christian devotion was taken for granted, and as traditional champion of the Church, her monarch was accorded the formula of “Most Christian King.” The people of his realm considered themselves the chosen objects of divine favor through whom God expressed his will on earth.
France’s power continued during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (who ruled from 1643–1715), when “France was far and away Europe’s greatest power.” Even in times of strife and trouble, such as the French Revolution, France remained influential. The aftermath of the revolution and the liberal-conservative dichotomy it introduced into European policies occupied European politics for over a century. (Such ideas often arrived with the armies of Napoleon, who needless to say, is another example of French power in Europe.) Even after French power began to decline vis-à-vis Germany and Great Britain, it remained a major player, especially as a colonial power.
Another major factor, historically, that made France great was its demography. France was Europe’s most populous country throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, only to be overtaken in recent times by Germany, Russia, and Britain. However, demographic trends in the rest of Europe mean that France will probably have the largest population in the EU by 2050. This will again give it an advantage over Germany.
This history is brought up here for two reasons. First, it demonstrates that when a country dominates its neighbors for centuries (like China or Persia), this is not a fluke, but is representative of deeper and persistent political, military, and geographic factors. Second, culture does matter to an extent, even in the geopolitical realm. France’s power partially derives from its unique intellectual and cultural role, much of which has been exported to its neighbors in Europe, particularly Southern Europe (which has been influenced by French political norms such as the Napoleonic Code), as well as its former colonies in the Middle East (Syria and Lebanon) and Africa.
Even though modern France is dwarfed in size and population by some other Western powers, France has always sought to provide the world with a model of governance that differs sharply from what the French see as Anglo-Saxon liberalism and Germany’s technocratic inclinations. This model is generally more centralized and unitary than that found in the United States or Germany; the French president has enormous powers. Most countries influenced by France or its former colonies follow French political traditions, which ties them more closely to France. In particular, in Africa, France has intervened constantly to support what it considers legitimate political systems, all of which, of course, are modeled on France. Paris is not as keen to enforce certain political norms in its client states as Washington is because France just wants to deal with regimes that are stable, as well as favorable to its geopolitical and economic interests. As such, France has often supported various dictatorships.
It also helps that France sees itself as a great power. In a sense, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. After World War II, France insisted on being treated as a victor and obtained a permanent seat on the newly formed Security Council at the United Nations, despite having been occupied by Germany. France is also one of the few countries to possess nuclear weapons. Charles de Gaulle wanted France to offer a third way between the United States and the Soviet Union, and remain active throughout the Third World. France’s desire to chart an independent course with Russia means that Germany won’t be able to determine Europe’s relations with that country on its own.
No wonder, then, that France is a major geopolitical player today. Along with all these factors, France has one of the world’s most capable militaries, ranked fifth by the Global Firepower Ranking. In particular, France can project force outside of its borders, which gives it enormous potential to influence military conflicts in Europe and Africa.
French power can be found throughout the world in a way matched by few other countries. France still includes territory in the South Pacific (i.e. French Polynesia) and South American (i.e. French Guiana). France also remains influential in its former colonies and protectorates throughout the Arab world, including in Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco.
But most important of all is its military prominence throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The French military is spread out across several of its former colonies, and France recently intervened in Mali decisively between 2012 and 2014 in order to stabilize the government and liberate the northern part of that country from ISIS (which had hijacked an ethnic rebellion in Mali after the return of ethnic Tuareg mercenaries from post-Gaddafi Libya). France also maintains troops in Djibouti near the Straits of Aden and has recently also intervened in Cote d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic to maintain stability. Its operations in Mali are considered a model for what a successful counterinsurgency operation should be like.
All in all, France is a major player throughout Africa in a way unmatched by German influence in Eastern Europe or any residual British influence in its former colonies. While nearly almost all of the Gulf Arab states were British protectorates a hundred years ago, today the United States plays the role of protector in that region. Not so throughout most of Françafrique, where France is still clearly dominant. France is likely to retain this significant role in Africa, regardless of its internal politics, because of the French conceit that it is a great power.
Geopolitical power and influence is not just about the size of a country’s economy, or population. Russia is clearly the most important geopolitical player in the world after the United States, despite the fact that it does not have the second largest population or economy. For reasons of political culture, strategic will, population, military-power projection capabilities, geography, and history, proud and oft-independent minded France remains Europe’s most important geopolitical player, both within Europe and the global arena.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.