In his 16 March broadcast to the nation President Macron tub-thumped his war campaign on Coronavirus. Six times he repeated the word ‘war’. Yesterday he visited the front: Mulhouse in Alsace – on the Franco-German border – where France’s largest virus cluster is overwhelming the region’s hospitals. Live tv saw him, masked up, in an army field hospital, surrounded by soldiers in combat gear. From there he spoke again to the nation. France, he intoned, was at war in this region, a region scarred by past wars. By remaining united France would defeat the coronavirus enemy. And he launched military ‘Operation Résilience’ to take the combat further.
Macron’s advisors have allegedly been briefing that he is the new Clemenceau. In 1917 when the war was going badly for France and the allies, Georges Clemenceau was made prime minister to re-invigorate the war effort. It was Clemenceau who, when asked in parliament what his policy was, retorted : ‘Domestic policy, I make war; foreign policy, I still make war’.
That coronavirus is a crisis there is no doubt. Whether it is worthy of being deemed a full-scale war is another matter. To be fair to Macron, he is not the only politician in France, or abroad, to use the war metaphor. But Macron, whose passion at secondary school was drama (which is how he met his wife) and which he relishes combining with history, is fully exploiting the theatricality of the crisis.
But there is a terrible irony lurking in this mise en scene of Georges Clemenceau’s victorious war-making. Clemenceau’s eventual victory in the Great War would rightly see him celebrated nationally and beyond as Père-la-Victoire. But Macron’s advisors forget that Clemenceau’s other war-time mantra was, ‘Germany will pay!’ Germany would be forced to pay the bill for the war. Just as Clemenceau threw all of France’s resources into the war effort, so Macron and his ministers have repeated the Mario Draghi quip. ’Whatever it takes’.
The French lockdown, which is now expected to last until the beginning of May, is an economic bombshell. French debt, before Covid-19, was running at over 100% GDP and France was already in breach of the EU’s 3% budget deficit rules. On 25 March the French statistical agency (INSEE) stated that French economic output was already down by 35% and that the crisis this year will knock 3 points off French GDP if lockdown lasts a month, 6% should it last two months. How will she pay for this? It seems Germany will be asked to pay.
On 25 March, nine European leaders, with France on the front-line, called for the debt from the coronavirus epidemic to be mutualised across the Eurozone. (Le Monde online 25 March). As I wrote in The Spectator on 22 March, the coronavirus debt mountain will make or break the EU. We are fast approaching a re-run of the 2010/12 euro crisis that came in the wake of the 2008 Great Financial Crash. On Tuesday EU finance ministers failed to agree on common measures to refloat their economies in the wake of Covid 19. Lined up on one side was France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Belgium and Greece, who called for the creation of a ‘common debt instrument’, nick-named by the Italian prime minister, somewhat morbidly: ‘Corona bonds’. In technical terms, according to the EU, to be effective this bond should be of a size and maturity sufficient not to risk refinancing in the future. In layman’s terms, a very large sum and for the long term.
In the 2010/12 euro crisis the principal beneficiaries were the so-called P.I.G.S. (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain). Sometimes referred to as the Southern states, their number has swelled since. The Spanish finance minister referred to the ‘euro-bond’ project as a ‘Marshall Plan’. But who will take on the financial role played by the Americans? The answer seems to be Germany.
As in the ‘euro crisis’ financing new euro debt will fall on those economical states from the so-called north of Europe, the largest of whom is Germany. Unsurprisingly at that meeting on Tuesday opposition to the ‘Corona bond’ was led by Germany and Holland. They insisted that the European Central Bank’s recent liquidity measures should be sufficient when supplemented by those of individual member states.
On Thursday EU heads of state and government again attempted to reach a compromise on Corona bonds by video-conference, Covid 19 oblige. But Angela Merkel rejected the plan, even as Italy and Spain suffered the full effects of the epidemic. She added insult to injury by insisting that the European Stability Mechanism was the best guarantor of members’ finances rather than debt mutualisation; that very same ESM that had been used to subjugate Greece. The German Chancellor was backed by Holland, Austria and Finland. But without the weight and prestige of the northern frugal states Corona bonds will not go ahead. In the end, if another euro crisis is to be avoided, Germany will have to pay. President Macron’s advisors would do best to forget the analogies with Clemenceau given that unfortunate historical context.
John Keiger is a former Director of Research at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, and a leading specialist in French foreign policy.