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Mar 22, 2024

France’s Pivot to Europe

The European Union seems disoriented in 2024. The German chancellor is turning to Washington when leadership is needed. That leaves French President Emmanuel Macron.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a press statement with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, ahead of their trilateral meeting of the consultation forum 'Weimar Triangle', at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany March 15, 2024.

In spring 2024, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is once again facing massive criticism, both nationally and internationally. After he presented himself as a European leader at the beginning of the year, emphasizing Germany's lead in aid to Ukraine and calling on European Union allies to do more, the “Taurus debate” has now caught up with him again. His refusal to take the initiative and agree to the delivery of the powerful cruise missile to Ukraine reinforces doubts at home and abroad about the seriousness of Germany’s turnaround, its so-called Zeitenwende.

Germany as a civilian power and the EU as a peace project—both principles are being challenged by Russia’s imperialism, which continues to shift borders by force in the 21st century. In response to this, German leadership in Europe is called for, but the signs are bad. With 18 months before the next federal elections, 72 precent of respondents in Germany were in favor of more money for defense and achieving NATO’s spending goal of 2 percent of GDP for security, and 66 percent were in favor of further arms deliveries to Ukraine, in a survey conducted by the Körber Foundation. However, 71 percent rejected a leading military role for Germany in Europe—a figure that is likely to be well known in the chancellery.

The survey results reflect an old European criticism of the German government, which relates to Scholz as well as his predecessor. Money is available, and the Germans can manage the status quo. But when it comes to developing new ideas, moving forward, and repositioning the EU in a changing world, Berlin cannot be counted on. The current government’s coalition agreement is extremely ambitious on paper and provides for discussions on the path to a "European federal state." However, instead of promoting corresponding reforms, disputes between the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and the so-called “German vote” in Brussels (a forced abstention because the three governing parties do not agree) are now obstructing the process more than ever. The impression among many EU partners is that Germany is standing in the way of change.

French Disappointment

With Berlin out of the picture, eyes are turning to Paris, where President Emmanuel Macron would love to lead Europe. The desire to leave behind a European policy legacy has been unmistakable throughout his presidency, from the speech at Sorbonne University in September 2017 to the speech in Bratislava in May 2023. In between, there have been some notable Franco-German and European successes: huge armaments projects were initiated in 2017; an ambitious new bilateral treaty was signed in Aachen in 2019; the strategic compass was adopted in 2022 under the French EU Council presidency. Shortly afterwards, the EU member states signed the "Versailles Agenda" to strengthen the EU armaments industry.

Nevertheless, Macron has come no closer to his ultimate goal. The EU is anything but sovereign today. The French president blames Olaf Scholz in particular for the fact that the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) has made hardly any progress since the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine, apart from new financing instruments. The moment of unity of 2017 has evaporated. At the time, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel, having returned from a first meeting with Donald Trump just months after his inauguration as US president, said that “the times when we could completely rely on others are over.” Merkel was clearly referring to the United States, and people in Paris pricked up their ears. The fact that she spoke in May 2017, shortly after Macron’s election, meant that the basis for historic Franco-German initiatives for a sovereign EU in terms of security policy seemed to be in place.

However, Merkel did not follow up. And since February 2022 at the latest, her successor Olaf Scholz has made no secret of his intention to tie himself as closely as possible to Washington once again. It is a return to the German identity of the Cold War—and a revision of the positions of 2017. Franco-German agreements from this period are therefore being fundamentally called into question. From the French perspective, the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) armaments projects are based on the conviction that the EU will have to assert itself alone in the 21st century in the long term. It is no coincidence that the Treaty of Aachen contains a bilateral mutual assistance clause and that the armed forces of both countries are to move closer to a “common culture.” Concerns about Trump’s potential return to the White House are now lending new urgency to these considerations.

A Difficult Ally

Paris is actively preparing for the scenario of a second Trump presidency. However, unlike in 2017, Macron is now familiar with the mistrust of his European partners. French claims to leadership have a long and complicated history reaching back to the European Defense Community (EDC), a French initiative, failing in 1954 due to resistance from France’s National Assembly, of all things. In 1966, France, then led by Charles de Gaulle, left NATO’s military command structures once its own nuclear deterrent was available. And when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many French politicians expected the end of NATO, which they considered superfluous. At the same time, they were hesitant about the subsequent development of the EU, in particular the eastward enlargement of 2004 and the growing weight of small member states.

France’s influence in Western alliance structures, in the EU and NATO alike, has been suffering from the legacy of Gaullism for decades. Its supposedly unconditional insistence on national sovereignty has made French initiatives for more cooperation less credible to this day, and this is abundantly clear in security and defense policy. Those who constantly emphasize that they can do everything on their own find it difficult to cultivate partners. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Macron and his government have repeatedly stumbled over this handicap, most recently in the course of discussions about the possible Europeanization of the French nuclear deterrent. So far, no partner, not in the EU and certainly not in NATO, can imagine French-led alternatives to the existing US nuclear umbrella.

Since 2017, Macron has also instinctively followed the Gaullist maxim that sees international politics as “multipolar” and wants to prevent new bloc formations at all costs. One prominent example—and there are many more—was his statement on independent EU positions between China and the United States, which he used to snub his Western partners on his return from a visit to China in April 2023. Macron knows that these positions are still very popular in France today. After all, the greatest success of French diplomacy in recent years was not the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015, but the French “no” to the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech at the UN Security Council.

First Change of Direction

Despite his commitment to the Gaullist guidelines of French foreign policy, Macron has recently changed course, the most significant change being his speech in Bratislava. The fact that a French president became an advocate of Ukrainian and Georgian NATO membership was tantamount to a revolution in 2023. There was soon talk of an "anti-Bucharest moment" in Bratislava, alluding to France's (and Germany's) historic opposition to both countries joining NATO, which had caused controversy at the alliance’s Bucharest summit in 2008. Since then, government representatives have liked to talk about the “Bratislava agenda,” which breaks with traditional French foreign and security policy positions.

Macron himself seems to have learned from past mistakes. In Bratislava, he began by revising his own 2019 diagnosis of NATO’s “brain death.” Russia’s attack on Ukraine was an “electric shock” that revived the transatlantic alliance (and not the EU). Instead of insisting on historical demands for EU sovereignty and offending its partners with polemical statements on NATO, the “Bratislava agenda” has since stood for the new pragmatism in French foreign policy, which is attempting to adapt to changed geopolitical circumstances on the European continent. Macron himself no longer defines European security “with Russia,” but against it. And French officials are noticeably swinging toward talk of strengthening the “European pillar within NATO.”

Instead of isolating himself, Macron is positioning himself as a pioneer of Western alliance structures. In doing so, he is benefiting from the weakness of the German chancellor and a US president, Joe Biden, who is visibly dragging himself into the US election campaign with difficulty. The controversy surrounding Macron’s statements on Western ground troops in Ukraine after a conference in Paris in February were just one example of this new line. The French president continues to insist on the long-term necessity of EU autonomy and this insistence on sovereignty remains essential for domestic political debates, including during the European election campaign. At the same time, however, Macron is signaling his willingness to put France’s long-term goals regarding Europe on the back burner in the short term. His concession on non-European ammunition procurement for Ukraine is one example of this.

Resistance in France

However, it is uncertain how sustainable the change of direction that Macron has initiated will be. The extent of the political path dependencies and bureaucratic inertia in Paris became apparent during the negotiations on the defense policy budget, which was passed in 2023. Expectations of the corresponding law, the loi de programmation militaire (LPM), were high, as the allocation of funds for the period 2024-2030 provides information on French priorities for the coming years. Political promises are quickly revised, and the figures in the LPM do not lie. The fact that the army did not emerge as the winner from the corresponding negotiations, but rather the navy—with significant increases in funding for the defense ministry as a whole—caused astonishment not only in Paris.

After all, Macron had announced a “pivot to high-intensity warfare” in 2023, which was intended to give new weight to French assurances of alliance solidarity on NATO’s eastern flank. The fact that a lot of money will now be spent over the next few years on a new aircraft carrier or the surveillance of French overseas territories—which at the same time will be lacking when it comes to strengthening the army structure and the weapons systems and ammunition available in Europe—is making those voices that doubt the seriousness of the “Bratislava agenda” louder.

“Tahiti remains more important than Warsaw,” quipped a journalist who is well acquainted with the events at the beginning of the year. There had previously been speculation about the extent to which Macron’s commitment to European security and NATO’s eastern flank was linked to his failures in West Africa in recent years. The withdrawal of French troops from Mali was announced in February 2022, just days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since then, further forced withdrawals from Burkina-Faso and Niger have followed, as well as the announcement of a reduction in troop contingents at bases in Senegal, Gabon, and Côte d'Ivoire. Although representatives of the defense ministry deny a direct connection, the question is obvious: Is France conducting a “pivot to Europe” here?

The Pivot as an Opportunity

The French “return” to Europe would be good news for Franco-German relations and European security. French sovereigntists like to emphasize that since the Suez Crisis of 1956, the United Kingdom has resigned itself to the end of the British Empire and accepted its junior role in the special relationship with the United States. Since then, France has been the only European power with global political weight. Brexit and the ambitions associated with the “Global Britain” slogan have not significantly affected this self-assessment in Paris. Instead, the dwindling influence in many francophone states of the former colonial empire in West Africa has triggered a debate that in some cases has existential overtones. When the French ambassador was asked to leave the country after the coup in Niger, some commentators in Paris saw a new “Suez,” or even another “Điện Biên Phủ,” alluding to the defeat of France in the First Indochina War in 1954.

The fact that French ambassadors are withdrawing and being replaced in West Africa by representatives from Russia, China, or Turkey is touching on the foundations of France’s foreign policy identity. As the heir to the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, its claim to “have something to say” to the world in the 21st century is anchored far beyond diplomacy. And anyone who wants to can certainly see the French identity crisis as a manifestation of the crisis of the entire West and its universal messages of human rights and democracy. 

But perhaps there is still an opportunity to be found in reflecting on Europe: for France, for Franco-German relations, and for the EU. After all, in view of the Ukrainian struggle for self-determination and security, it is obvious that the defense of democracy and human rights is also necessary in Europe. Emmanuel Macron seems to seize the opportunity and use the remaining three years of his term of office to make France the leading power of a sovereign EU.

Jacob Ross is Research Fellow for France and Franco-German Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).

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