Summer in France: Idyllic, but a chilling Euro winter looms

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By John J. Metzler

PARIS — It’s been a strange and uncertain summer, bookmarked by high temperatures, torrid inflation, and a very hot war on Europe’s eastern doorstep.

France is still in vacation mode for a few more hectic weeks, but as the once glorious long days now shorten and the inevitable Rentree begins, the return to school and full schedules looms as in the USA with Labor Day, it’s nearly time to turn the calendar.

On the one hand, the French are rightfully complaining about spiking inflation numbers which at 6.8% are nonetheless still lower than the U.S.

France is still in vacation mode for a few more hectic weeks.

There’s barely a hint of last year’s Covid consciousness with few restrictions; people are so over that. Yet anyone would be foolish to announce the premature demise of the pandemic which devastated Europe.  Parisian pollution seems more the daily concern be it from endless traffic, buzzy motorbikes or what seems like a resurgence in cigarette smoking.

President Emmanuel Macron was comfortably reelected a few months ago, but everyone nonetheless appears upset about something.

From the metaphysical bubble of the TGV high speed train which whisked us back to Paris from the beautiful Brittany coast, often passing the metallic forests of near useless power windmills, I wondered WHY France and the French seem so detached from the expanding war in Ukraine?

This is the eastern rampart of the European Union after all where the level and ferocity of conflict, thankfully not seen since the Second World War, is thumping on the gates of Europe.

The old pre-WWII left wing slogan, “Why die for Danzig?” then undermining support for Poland, has become a near collective yawn for Ukraine. While American cities and even small towns through New England proudly fly the free Ukrainian flag in support, there are notably few Ukrainian flags flown in France despite the country’s expression of solidarity on just about any global issue. Few Ukrainian flags fly even in Paris save for a few at government buildings and  City Hall.

To paraphrase, many French will say, “We strongly support the Ukrainian people, this is a moral outrage what’s happening.  But we cannot confront Russia. This is for the Americans to do.”

Well thanks!

There seems an odd ambivalence towards what transpires in Ukraine; people are certainly concerned, but somehow detached from a war that remains 1,500 miles away and buffered by NATO’s defensive shield in Poland. Nonetheless on the eve of the war, Macron met with Putin in a stillborn peace initiative.

Naturally summer puts most people in a detached mindset. Looming energy shortages facing most of central Europe such as Germany, Poland, and Austria among others, and turning down thermostats still seems pretty far off. Since it’s still hot,  thinking about  the inevitable natural gas shortfalls from Russia which will potentially shock the German and Italian economies appears remote.

France to its credit still produces nearly three quarters of its electricity from its domestic nuclear power and thus is not directly hostage to Vladimir Putin’s energy blackmail.

It’s quite the opposite in Germany for example where a flow of cheap Russian natural gas delivered through a spiderweb of pipelines has made Europe’s largest economy dangerously dependent on Moscow’s energy supplies.

The respected French daily Le Figaro editorialized, “The strongest industrial power on the continent, glutinously consumes Russian gas, is on the edge of a catastrophe.”

Russia’s war will grind on. Carthage seems the plan where the Russian military bluntly uses its artillery and firepower to shatter, smash and flatten Ukrainian towns and villages. This is a blunt form of terror, that of the sledgehammer and those who wield it indiscriminately over civilian targets. Moscow’s military is not winning the war in any traditional sense, but they are bludgeoning the opposition the old Soviet way.

Washington has slated another $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine boosting the total of lethal aid thus far to nearly $10 billion. It’s almost as if Team Biden is putting all its military chips on Kyiv as a counterweight to expunge the still shameful Afghan debacle.

Just a year ago, the Biden Administration presided over Afghanistan’s appalling military collapse and that country’s subsequent return to a Taliban regime. Yet the contrasts with Ukraine are glaring; Kyiv’s military is motivated and willing to fight and stand a real chance to regain Russian occupied territories. The Ukrainians are fighting valiantly with our help.

Moscow’s plan depends on the weather, the falling autumn and winter temperatures, which will force energy starved countries to face a harsh European winter. Will those conditions then melt the current anti-Putin political solidarity?

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]

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