In view of the outcry provoked by the French President’s announcement of the need to prepare for the eventuality of having to send French troops into combat in Ukraine, it is very easy and very tempting to draw a parallel with the reaction of democracies to the rise of Hitler’s threat. It would be easy to draw a parallel between the pacifists of the time and those of today, between the war-mongers of yesterday and those of today.

The situation in Europe in 2024 has much in common with that of 1938: a cynical dictator who respects only force, convinced of the congenital weakness of democracies, determined to expand his living space to escape from a feeling of encirclement. The same feeling of encirclement that the Prussians have felt since the 18th century, and that the Russians have experienced for even longer, perhaps even since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, which made Russia the sole pole of Orthodoxy, surrounded by nations claiming different religions. In both camps, in both eras, European peoples in conflict, but with similar cultures, with a vocation to get along, to share values, to build hand in hand a strong political entity, the bearer of a common civilization. And, in both situations, the United States is very reluctant to get involved in a conflict in Europe.

So it’s understandable that, to avoid going down in history as the successor to Chamberlain, or worse, Laval, the French President chose to openly discuss the possibility of sending troops to the Ukraine, a subject that had been under discussion in the military staffs for two years. This provoked the same reactions as those which greeted the declarations of Churchill, then one of the leaders of the British opposition, and those of Colonel de Gaulle.

But here’s the thing: if we want to pursue the parallel seriously, we need to remember that, in 1938, the real problem was not a question of posture. It was the inability of the French, British, Soviet and American armies to take on an over-armed German army, and above all, a German military industry that had been put to work at breakneck speed.

And this is undoubtedly what makes the French President’s speech lack credibility: the urgency is not to announce that we are ready to send soldiers to the battlefield, but to create the conditions for the credibility of our army (and, more generally, the armies of other European countries). If the aim was to send a serious message to the Russian president, it would have been more credible, without announcing anything publicly, to put French industry (and more generally the industry of other European countries) to work at breakneck speed. To produce five or ten times as many tanks, munitions and drones.

Of course, this would require a dramatic reorientation of budgetary allocations, which will in any case be necessary when we’re forced to make spending choices far more demanding than the 10 billion in savings announced so far. Clear, fair and effective choices, finally tackling the countless wasteful and duplicative practices that sclerotize French society.

Such choices are unlikely: the government is not prepared to put the country into a war economy. The country isn’t ready to hear it, because it hasn’t been prepared for the scale and imminence of the risks.

Twice already, in recent years, we have missed the opportunity to embark on these major reforms, by giving the country lofty ambitions: Firstly, at the time of the Covid-19 epidemic, when masks, respirators, medicines and vaccines would have had to be manufactured at breakneck speed. Unlike other countries, we did nothing of the kind. Then, when the dramatic deficits in our balance of payments and balance of trade were announced, we should have put all our resources into reindustrializing the country and training the necessary managers, engineers and workers.

In all these cases, we should have succeeded in making work the cardinal value. But to achieve this, we would have had to create the conditions for social justice and a common project. We would have had to explain at length to the country the risks it runs by not preparing for the worst, by allowing its public and foreign debt to grow, and by allowing its army, health system, school system and engineering schools to deteriorate.

Is it too late? I can’t say. I’m only certain of one thing: the time for illusions has passed; and words will not replace deeds for much longer.

Image: Pexels.