Scholarly Publications and Papers
Help | Free Search | Search by Year | Search by Country | Search by Issue (Subject) | G8 Centre

Scholarly Pulications and Papers

"The Course of Summitry"

The World Today 48, No. 2 (February 1992): 27-30.

Nicholas Bayne

The French Viewpoint on the future of the G-7

Philippe Moreau Defarges

The French View of G-7 Summits

In 1975, France launched the idea of annual meetings between the heads of state or government of the major economic powers. The first summit took place in Rambouillet (15-17 November). Two motives guided Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was the French president at that time. The first reason was classic. Management of world affairs is both hegemonic and technocratic. Just as the European concert-to which France belonged-was set up in the nineteenth century to manage the European order, so it was logical to set up a world economy concert in the last quarter of the twentieth century to manage the world economy. There was a strong factor pushing towards this formula: after the dollar devaluation (August 1971) and the first oil shock (Autumn 1973), the Bretton Woods system of economic and monetary rules broke down. The second reason was more personal. Valery Giscard d'Estaing was very keen on being a modern President, aware of changing patterns. He liked to stress globalizing trends (mondialisme) and even mentioned that, in the seventies, the French population was only 1 percent of the world population (something which brought him harsh criticism from French pundits). In any case, Valery Giscard d'Estaing was convinced that regular meetings of the major economic powers leaders could provide an informal government of the world economy.

Six years later, François Mitterrand was elected president of the French Republic. He is quite a different man, fond of traditions, more fascinated by the past than by the future. From his perspective, modernity does not and cannot change man. Having studied economics with Jacques Attali, he has an interesting vision of this science.

For François Mitterrand, who is deeply sensitive to shows of grandeur and power, G-7 summits certainly are and must be ceremonies. When he went to his first G-7 summit in 1981 (Montebello), this man (who for decades had fought to assume the top responsibility in France) probably discovered a new world: the strange and mysterious circle of the most powerful people on earth

As a Frenchman, François Mitterrand's references are deeply rooted in French landscapes and literature. He is more interested by men, their pretences, their social games than by bureaucratic turmoil. Over the years, he has watched men age, faces come and go. Perhaps power is an illusion, but it is a wonderful one.

Any French president, whether right- or left- wing will remain faithful to this illusion. And a prime minister, who may have a dream to become president? He knows that the G-7 are in the presidential orbit.

Thus G-7 summits have not really engendered any major debate in France since their inception. By nature, they are considered the president's business and belong to this mysterious high-level sphere of power. Why is G-7 summitry not controversial in France?

Academic circles . Universities and scholars do not feel at ease with this grey zone which lies "between" classic interstate relations and international organizations. But this may be explained by Raymond Aron, the "father" of international relations, who in his writings during the Cold War era, somehow remained close to a Machiavellian (non-cooperative, non-institutional) view of international relations.(1)

The Press . Little attention is given by the press to the G-7, except during the summit meetings. Of course, in the late 1970s, some left or leftist newspapers (mostly Le Monde Diplomatique, a widely circulated daily permeated with Third Worldist ideas) threw G-7 summits and the Trilateral Commission into the same dustbin. But, in the 1990s, that kind of argument is outmoded. The established press-from Le Figaro to Libération, from L'Express to Le Nouvel Observateur is not very discriminating vis-à-vis the G-7 mechanism: every summit is always "an excellent summit".

The political sphere. Even if the formula belongs to De Gaulle's era, the notion of domains réservé (reserved domain) remains broadly accepted by the political establishment. G-7 summits lie at the core of the presidential domain (as was confirmed by Prime Minister Jacques Chirac's fiasco when he went to the Tokyo Summit in 1986, and by Edouard Balladur's absence from Tokyo in 1993).

A club of the world's richest nations

G-7 summits are the regular meetings of the heads of state or government of the seven richest democracies in the world. That is the way it is and, for France, that is the way it must continue to be.

For France, the G-7's raison d' être still exists. The seven participants (plus the president of the European Commission) remain the pillars of the world trade system. Given their open borders, they are the most involved in market fluctuations (goods, services, but also capital movements, currencies). But these countries also share common values: human rights, democracy, belief in dialogue and negotiation to manage conflicts.

There may have been a French inclination to give the summits a philosophical dimension: the most advanced economies could share their doubts and reflections on the future. In fact, during the Versailles Summit (1982), President Mitterrand, inspired by Attali, proposed to set up a task force on relations between technology, employment and growth. The Versailles Summit was a very special meeting; the welcome was royal, but (the socialist feast being over) France was going through a monetary crisis. Maybe the future was a way out. In any case, the French initiative backfired; the survey on "Technology, Employment and Growth" was soon forgotten.

France feels the G-7 summits must continue to be economic meetings. Indeed, the country has reluctantly accepted the shift towards political debates (especially, on security issues). The reasons for this reluctance are well known:

G-7 summits are based on two implicit-and maybe contradictory-rules, which characterize that kind of informal, non-binding meeting:

The final declaration reflects a soft consensus (in French: un consensus mou). France has more or less accepted these rules, at least since the Williamsburg Summit (1983) during which the French president was "surprised" to have to adopt a position regarding an American draft declaration on security issues.

France does not consider G-7 summits the pertinent forum for discussion of detailed political orientations. However, the fact that G-7 summits are an expression of the "Western conscience" cannot be ignored.

The rich and the South

As a club of the world's richest nations, the G-7 has special responsibilities. France has never forgotten its ambition to act as a link between North and South. In 1975-77, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, promoted a still-born North-South Dialogue (Paris Conference on Economic International Cooperation). François Mitterand has a deeply entrenched feeling that money is fiendish. Fairness cannot stem from market mechanisms, but demands self-imposed steps. The prospect of a new international economic order has almost completely disappeared since then, but something like an afterglow is still there. France feels that there will be, must be a return to North-South dialogue. As Jean Giraudoux has said "La France est 1'embdteuse du monde " (France is the world's spoil-sport).

France feels that G-7 summits are the suitable place for free, high-level talks on relations between rich and poor countries. It favored the North-South Summit in Cancun in 1981. In the French view, whether neo-Gaullist or socialist, voluntary political management is a necessity and North-South summits could complete and balance G-7 summits. But the Cancun meeting was not a success: the free market wind was already sweeping away Third Worldist rhetoric. In the 1989 Paris Summit, in the midst of bicentennial celebrations, France had the idea of attempting to resuscitate North-South summits; however, the idea failed to lure France's partners.

In the French view, each summit should debate major North-South issues: public aid, debt, patterns of development, etc. Of course, the Third World is not in the nineties what it was in the sixties. In the sixties, it was a more like a bloc because of the decolonizing process. In the nineties, the development factor has established strong, fluctuating gaps between Southern countries. Some countries, those that missed-or were unable to catch-the train of economic growth (above all the African countries) have been forgotten. Regardless who is president, France will never give up this theme. Mitterrand may have a hidden desire to prevent the club from being too comfortable, too far away from world poverty.

More generally, France, like any G-7 participant, uses those summits as a resonator for its preoccupations (e.g. international monetary system reform).

Concertation, Negotiation and Institutionalization

In dealing with international mechanisms, France acts as if there were dividing lines (as well as interconnections) between concertation, negotiation and institutionalization.


Concertation means free dialogue. This either means non-binding decisions, or decisions that must be defined and adopted through specific negotiating mechanisms.

For the French tradition, concertation constitutes a basic feature of international relations. Concertation calls for a situation in which people can speak freely. Today, only the narrowest circle of top leaders can be in such a situation, and even their "freedom" must be protected by at least two elements: secrecy and non-binding conversations. Any sentence said by men in power is "committing"; therefore, concertation must not be straight committing.

Thus any forum for concertation , particularly between heads of state or government, cannot escape tension between the need for informal, free talks on the one hand, and expectations of all those who are outside of the sacred circle and who want to see results. Governing men (and women) remain men and women. Especially in crisis times, talks between equals are a way to address questions, to defuse (sometimes to increase) uncertainty and anxiety, to reassure that all share the same difficulties. At the same time, the "natural" tendency is to make longer and longer declarations. It is always comforting to end meetings with papers which are always historic . . . for a day or two.

In the French view, concertation involves imbalance in favor of informal, personal conversations. However G-7 summits-deeply conditioned by media society-are increasingly tilting towards the logic of showmanship, as illustrated by the Versailles (1982) and Paris (1989) Summits. In any case it seems that G-7 place two meeting side by side: talks between heads of state or government; and negotiations among sherpas leading to the declarations.


Negotiation is a different process. Any negotiation focuses on some kind of a text, involving juridical and/or practical decisions. From that viewpoint, a distinction must to be made between economic and financial issues, on one hand, and political issues, on the other. The former are the raison d' être of G-7 mechanisms. Several channels provide connections between heads of state and government and the bureaucratic structures. The economic ministries and above all their directors are essential for summit follow-ups. The political issues were added later to the summit agenda. Many other structures exist to achieve political solidarities (e.g. Atlantic Alliance, European Political Cooperation-to become Common Foreign and Security Policy) and balances (e.g. the UN Security Council). Should negotiation be a task of the G-7 summits? It is not and cannot be the job of heads of state and government (time constraints leave less than ten hours for useful discussion; but could twenty or thirty hours improve the process?). Nor can it be the job of sherpas because talks would lose all flexibility.

This tension between concertation and negotiation is not specific to G-7 summits; it can be found in any top-level dialogue. From this viewpoint, one of the big assets (which is, of course, also a handicap) of G-7 summits stems from the fact that they are beyond bureaucratic structures.


A comparison is sometimes made between G-7 summits and the European Council. But the latter is an institution set in the framework of a larger one (the European Community; since November 1993, the European Union). The European Council operates in a political, administrative and juridical system. Therefore, it moves between concertation (on political orientations, the general evolution of the European process) and negotiation (mostly budgetary issues: the British "contribution"; budget planning).

From time to time, there are complaints: the European Council is trapped by technical debates. But the dividing line between "technical" and "political" questions is not and cannot be fixed in the European Union.

The French believe that the G-7 summit cannot and must not be a Western council. G-7 summits highlight specific and common preoccupations; this does not mean that these preoccupations can build up a closed system.

The debate on G-7 institutionalization brings two well-known questions to the fore: What is "Western" identity? (consider that Japan has been one of the three pillars of this identity since the mid-seventies.) Is an institutionalized Western directoire with a global economic role possible beyond G-7 summits?

What is "Western" identity? Western identity is a community of values (human rights, democracy, free trade, etc.). In the postwar years, Western identity had crystallized against an enemy, the Enemy: the Soviet Union. But now, especially after the fall of the Iron Curtain and the failure of autarkic experiences, this community is becoming a global stake between Western democracies and ex-communist countries, North and South. In fact, since the late 1940s, Western identity has crystallized against an enemy, the Enemy, that is, the Soviet Union.

As far as economics are concerned, the Western community is a conflictual one. Three dynamics are converging to redefine (or more probably dilute) this Western economic identity:

But institutions cannot be cut off from reality. G-7 summits are a club of the richest nations of the world at a time when the wealth of nations is on the move.

Is an institutionalized Western directoire with a global economic role possible beyond G-7 summits possible? If wealth is on the move, so is legitimacy-albeit with a bit of time lag. From 1975 to the late 1980s, the club of the richest nations was backed by two factors: the fact that the Communist world was not connected to economic circuits (raw materials and debt servicing in limited connections); and the fact that most of the Third World was either outside of the economic system or remained passive in front of it.

What could be the historical meaning of institutionalization?

France and G-7 Summit Adjustments

The nature and place of G-7 summits must not be forgotten. They are only one piece of several huge and often overlapping networks: political, monetary, financial.

G-7 summits provide a meeting point for seven heads of state or government, plus the president of the European Commission. Of course, they provide a remarkable opportunity for free talks between these men and women, but G-7 summits are only one fora among many.

Another dimension stems from interacting dynamics between political and technocratic logic. The heads of state and government establish orientations, sometimes even take decisions. These orientations and decisions result from long, complicated technocratic discussions; and once adopted, they return to the technocratic channels. A French poet, Jean Cocteau wrote, "Feignons d'organiser ces mystères qui nous dépassent" (Let us pretend to manage those mysteries which we do not understand).

The heads of state or government participating in G-7 summits face a dilemma if they accept too compelling conclusions: either they must implement them and run the risk of being strongly criticized for having let themselves be captured by the mood of the meeting, or they must forget them. This dilemma was well illustrated in the late seventies by West Germany and the locomotive theory.

Preparations. A very small circle of persons is in charge of summit preparations: sherpas and top-level civil servants (Treasury directors and high-ranking diplomats). The preparations are based on a delicate balance among personal connections, daily contacts by telephone and fax, and regular meetings. How could this process be changed?

If they become more formal and more bureaucratic, the summits themselves will become more institutionalized.

Frequency. It is clear that G-7 summits cannot meet more frequently than once a year. But should they meet less often? Every one and a half or two years? Less frequent summits would be considered a setback in Western solidarity. And yearly frequency is so simple.

Membership. This club cannot exclude any of its present participants. G-7 summits are based on mutual trust and consensus-in fact on a very formal balance. They also materialize the most comprehensive Western community with three pillars (Western Europe, North America, Japan), whereas other Western institutions express Euro-American solidarity.

Current debate on enlarging the club is limited to Russia. At the July 1991 London Summit, Mikhail Gorbachev asked to be received by the seven heads of state or government and was given a positive response. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, president of Russia, became a permanent guest star of G-7 summits. Since then, these summits fulfill an important political role in watching and helping the transition process in Russia towards market economy and democracy. Thus, Russian participation-which takes place after the G-7 summit itself-has a clear-cut political meaning: Russia is received because of its size, its weight and perhaps its disturbing capacity.

This Russian presence could one day give rise to a matter of principle: what answer should be given to China if it takes the path to democracy and asks to join the club? In the future, G-7 summits will not be able to escape the tension between their present position of a club of rich nations and world economic shifts.

Meeting organization. Three aspects of G-7 summit meetings demand attention: media representation, social events and the balance between official and informal talks.

·Media representation. Thousands of journalists crowd G-7 summits. On the one hand, this may be considered a nuisance, complicating security measures and checks, demanding "historical" and practical declarations at the end of every summit. On the other, the meeting of the leaders of the richest nations of the world is and must be an event. Perhaps the real risk is not overcrowded meetings, but meetings that are not very well attended. In any case, a decrease in media representation depends less on bureaucratic decisions than on media assessments.

·Social events. Especially when the developed countries are going through difficult times, it would be logical to have less lavish summits. But this kind of meeting is also a ceremony. A balance between work and social events must be kept. Here too, the answer cannot come from administrative or collective decisions. It is really the job of the host country; but that job is not easy-hosts always try to outdo each other!

·Balance between official and informal talks. From the French viewpoint, G-7 summits are, above all, opportunities for personal contacts. This implies short official meetings, leaving time for free-flowing conversation. It means that everything that can facilitate informal exchanges must be favored. Sherpas and high-ranking officials should perhaps also have more time for such contacts, instead of having to write and re-write final declarations.

Final declarations. Final declarations resemble Jacques Prévert's inventories or Jorge Luis Borges' lists: they can include the whole world. Of course, declarations should be shorter, focusing on a few key points. But, if declarations are shorter, they will be read more carefully and become more binding. Declarations would certainly be stronger if they made some real commitments (especially towards developing countries). However, as mentioned earlier, the French president and government should remain faithful to their traditional reluctance vis-à-vis any mixing of binding and non-binding conclusions.

Another formula could be dividing "declaratory" paragraphs from "binding" ones. But is this formula realistic?

Follow-up. Preparation and follow-up have, in fact, become one and the same: the implementation of one summit being the preparation of the next one. From the French viewpoint, informal day-to-day contacts and non-bureaucratic exchanges must be kept up.

Concluding Remarks

G-7 summits stem from a very precise period: the 1970s. On the one hand, the rules established after the Second World War were deeply shaken (i.e. fluctuating instead of fixed exchange rates), but their underlying philosophy-institutionalized liberalism-remained. On the other hand, the non-Western world was showing some strength (oil shocks), although it was still on the periphery of world markets. G-7 summits were an attempt to manage this fluid situation: the richest democracies concerting within the framework of flexible rules.

The international landscape of the 1990s is quite different. A true world competition is emerging. The great communist icecap has melted away; only tiny icebergs (North Korea, Cuba) still survive. The Third World has become fragmented, some countries entering the economic competition, others lagging behind. New issues-mostly global-are taking shape: the environment; health (AIDS being the most conspicuous example); nuclear policy; trade of all kinds (from goods to drugs, weapons to information).

G-7 summits can go on in their present form. But, as years pass, the gap between appearances and reality will deepen. As in the fairy tale, people will see that the emperor is naked!

Many adjustments can be envisaged: more detailed proceedings; more sophisticated channels; different types of discussions; shorter or longer declarations; and, more fundamentally, partnership with third countries. But the Tokyo Summit declaration remains inside the present framework.

(1) The only French book focused on G-7 summits is G. de Ménil, Les sommets économiques : les politiques nationales à l'heure de l'interdépendance (Paris: Enjeux intemationaux/IFRI, 1983), and readership remains quite limited.

G8 Centre
This Information System is provided by the University of Toronto Library and the G8 Research Group at the University of Toronto.
Please send comments to:
This page was last updated Friday, August 20, 1999 10:45:52.

All contents copyright 1995-99. University of Toronto unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.