Why France Matters
France displays manifold strengths, which reinforce each other when the strengths are considered as a whole.
There is of course the France that you think you know, but which never ceases to surprise you beyond what you thought you knew. This is the France of history, beginning with some of the earliest known human settlements, progressing through Caesar’s Gallic Wars, the century of Louis XIV through to modern times. There is the well-known France of culture, ranging from the Gallo-Roman ruins to Gothic cathedrals and Beaux-Arts architecture; painting from Poussin to the impressionists to Klein; music from Marc-Antoine Charpentier through Edith Piaf and now French Touch; cinema from the Lumière Brothers to The Artist; and above all French language and literature. Add to this French luxury and a civilized lifestyle and you have the France everybody knows, or wants to know.
France is also a highly organized country, much more so than many others. Its healthcare system delivers some of the best outcomes in the world, both in terms of life expectancy and the overall health of the population, through a surprisingly successful form of public-private partnership, far indeed form socialized medicine. France’s primary education, especially the early education école maternelle, gives an equal start to all children in a way that has been studied around the world. For a country which is thought of as highly centralized, regional and local government takes on an extraordinary importance, alongside national institutions that function impeccably even when politics is stymied.
French companies stand among the largest multinationals in every global industry except for information technology, where Europe as a whole lacks any leader. In 21st century industries such as clean energy, environmental services and infrastructure, the country boasts world-class corporations operating globally. The inventiveness of the FrenchTech entrepreneurial sector is achieving increased recognition, for example at the annual CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas.
To be sure, France faces socio-economic problems that hold the country back. But even here lie innovations and lessons to be learned. The country successfully integrates immigrants by conforming to a strong cultural model in a partnership between government and individuals. Higher education and research, too long separated, are undergoing needed reforms. The toughest reforms, of the protectionist labor code and burdensome tax system, both require deep changes, but this is recognized and being addressed, albeit piecemeal.
There is no question that France counts enormously in the world. The only country to have sovereign territory on all five major continents, France is also the only country to have been a founder-member of the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the European Union. Its diplomatic representation is second in size and scope only to the United States. Within the EU, nothing can happen without France. And France is the only NATO member besides the United States to have a full-spectrum defense capability land, sea, air, submarine, nuclear and a fully-fledged defense industry using its own technology and under its own control.
Combine these elements as for example some of them are combined in the COP21 environmental conference of December 2015 and it becomes obvious that France matters, often in ways that those who only see one piece of the picture would not imagine to be so powerful.
Senior Fellow, Program on Transatlantic Relations, Atlantic Council
Senior Advisor, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques
Board Director, Chatham House Foundation
Adjunct Faculty, Sciences Po