In 2017, freshly elected into office, French President Emmanuel Macron invited US President Donald Trump to attend the Bastille day celebrations in Paris. This was telling for two reasons.
First, it signaled that Macron did not want to snub Washington, as some of his predecessors had. The United States is still the world’s most important power. Everything from battling climate change to fighting Islamist terrorists in Mali becomes easier if Washington is on your side. You thus need to embrace Trump, so Macron’s thinking.
Second, the visit showed how detached the French are from the US. Earlier in 2017, Trump dodged a London trip fearing massive protests. 1.8 million Brits had signed a petition to disinvite the US president. Trump still hasn’t been to Berlin. But in Paris no one objected to Macron wining and dining Trump at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The French conceive of their country as a power in its own right. Trump’s election did not feel to them like a betrayal or abandonment.
And this two-pronged approach of seeking cooperation with the US where possible, while underlining France’s independence, has been Macron’s strategy ever since. With this he is fully in line with his two big heroes: Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.
Historically, there have been two camps on how to deal with the “ricains” in France. You have the atlantistes who welcome US leadership and bank on NATO for Europe’s security. And there are the so-called gaullo-mitterrandistes. Washington is a “privileged partner,” sure. But they believe Paris must be able to stand its own ground. Their thinking rests on two key assumptions.
One, the instincts of the American people are isolationist. Washington stayed neutral initially in both world wars. The US intervened once it was attacked itself—after Germany extended the submarine warfare to American commercial ships (1917) and Japan attacked the Pacific base Pearl Harbor (1941). Counting just on the US for your security is thus foolish.
Two, the American and French revolutions are the birth moments of the “free world.” There is no doubt, France is a “Western nation.” But just by virtue of being liberal democracies, US and French interests aren’t automatically congruent. Former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine (1997-2002) summed it up best, saying, “We are friends, allies, but not aligned.”
There are differences in values. France and the US have differing conceptions of “freedom,” for instance. But perhaps more crucially, the US sits on its own continent and is thousands of miles away from Damascus or Bamako. “Each state makes the policies of its geography,” Napoléon Bonaparte once said. France and Europe need strategic autonomy, so they can pursue their own specific interests.
Needless to say, it’s clear which camp currently has the upper hand in Paris. The Élysée appointed Védrine to represent France in the expert group on reforming NATO that was launched after the row over Marcon’s “brain-dead” comments to The Economist. Macron’s “European sovereignty” paradigm is essentially a Europeanization of gaullo-mitterrandiste thinking.
But to fully understand Macron’s view of the US and his push for EU sovereignty, you have to recount the history of a couple of hot summer days in August 2013, or at least so goes the conventional Paris view.
The 2007 election of Nicholas Sarkozy as French president heralded an atlantiste period. Sarkozy reintroduced France into NATO’s integrated military command. His successor François Hollande, who appointed Macron as his deputy secretary-general in 2012, sought close ties to the popular US President Barack Obama. But then the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb. This was a “red line” stated by Washington, London, and Paris.
Hollande ordered French fighter jets to get ready. But traumatized by Iraq, the House of Commons forbid British Prime Minister David Cameron from intervening. And Obama called off the strike at the last minute to agree to a Russian-brokered deal for Assad to give up chemical weapons that later proved ineffective. (Jeffrey Lewis and Bruno Tertrais wrote a breath-taking day-to-day account of the crisis.)
The Syrian episode, forgotten by most, is central to understand Macron’s and French thinking on foreign and defense policy. It came on the back of Obama also being reluctant to assist Paris in their operation to prevent a fundamentalist militia taking over Mali’s capital a few months earlier. Long before 2017, it led to the realization in Paris that Washington is on its way out of North Africa and the Middle East.
And it helps explain why the Élysée is so obsessed with backing up “red lines” in the current stand-off with Turkey. By U-turning in Syria, the French believe the US had lost its most important asset—its ability to deter the world’s strongmen. “We rightly complained about the risks of a US hyper-power, but isn’t the risk [now] of a power that is not exercised?,” Hollande asked at the time. He also blamed Russia’s annexation of Crimea on Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” in Syria. Macron has repeatedly echoed these statements.
Against this background it should be noted that Macron’s posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean is not just about selling Rafale fighter jets and EU solidarity. It is part of a larger strategy to restore deterrence and repair the damage from 2013, single-handedly if necessary. In one of the first foreign policy statements as president, Macron made clear that under his watch Paris would strike on its own should chemical weapons be used again.
Missing the Old US
Still, Macron misses the old America. Alongside a more Gaullist Europe, he would still like to see a US engaged and willing to walk the talk in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. And NATO may be “brain-dead,” but it is not obsolete in Macron’s eyes, as his visit to French NATO troops stationed in Lithuania and Latvia at the end of September showed. Macron wants a stronger Europe. But this does not mean that he wants a weaker US.
After all, who else would France partner up with to contain the world’s bad guys and defend the “free world” by force if necessary, the French ask? Or as Charles de Gaulle once said, “In truth, who has been America’s staunchest ally, if not France…? Should the worst happen, should the freedom of the world come under threat, who would be the most obvious allies, if not France and the United States?” It’s not by chance that Macron has a portrait of de Gaulle on his desk.
Joseph de Weck is a journalist and historian based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.