Macron’s Pivot on Russia
The French president’s speech last week drew much undeserved criticism. In the Ukraine crisis, Paris may be Washington's most demanding partner, but it is also proving to be its most reliable one.
Usually, when journalists and think tankers criticize the French president, it is because Emmanuel Macron has said or done something controversial. The two prime examples are Macron’s attempt to set up a Paris-Moscow dialogue on European security without consulting fellow European Union member states and him declaring NATO “braindead,” both in 2019.
The incidents are part of two long-standing traditions of French foreign policy that haven’t served the country particularly well: a penchant for provocative speeches leading nowhere and Paris trying to take on Europe’s leadership with no one following it.
But when it comes to the current outrage over Macron’s speech in the European Parliament last week, it is for once his critics who have lost the plot.
Check Against Delivery
To be fair, it all started with some bad reporting. The Financial Times and other papers put words into Macron’s mouth that he did not say, which were then seized upon in the Twittersphere.
The key quote in Macron’s speech, which the FT inaccurately translated from French, is “The next few weeks must lead us to finalize a European proposal building a new security and stability order, we must build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in NATO and then submit it to negotiation with Russia.”
Based on this statement, the FT writes in a matter-of-fact style that Macron urged “EU states to conduct their own dialogue” and made the case for a “separate dialogue” or a “Europe-only dialogue” with Russia on security issues. In the same vein, The Economist’s defense editor claimed on Twitter that Macron wants a security architecture for Europe without NATO.
It is quite hard to explain how these outlets, which due to their singular credibility have a specific responsibility in clearly differentiating between what a head of state says and what the journalists’ interpretation thereof is, have come to this reading of Macron’s speech.
Sure, Macron did not explicitly say that NATO should be part of negotiations with Russia for a new security architecture if they should ever get underway. But he did not say the contrary either. Considering that in the same speech, Macron said that EU defense is “complimentary” to NATO, that an EU proposal would first be consulted with NATO, and that Paris announced on the same day that it is ready to deploy troops to Romania to strengthen NATO’s eastern flank, would all suggest that France is not hellbent on shutting out NATO from any negotiations.
The Economist journalist has since deleted his Tweet. But once a misunderstanding is in the public domain, it is of course hard to correct it, and commentators have already weighed in blasting Macron by recycling French tropes and Charles de Gaulle quotes.
This is unfortunate—all the more so since listening to Macron one should have spotted a bigger story: France’s Russia policy is pivoting. Macron, the man who finds it impossible to acknowledge mistakes, is trying to make amends for his Paris-Moscow security dialogue that turned out to be a complete failure.
Macron’s overture to Russian President Vladimir Putin is arguably both Macron’s biggest foreign and EU policy mistake. It yielded no results in terms of enhanced security on the continent, as we can see today. It did not prevent Russia from meddling in French key interests either, as the spat over the deployment of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Mali shows.
Even worse, Macron’s solo stunt cost him much political capital with the EU’s eastern member states. It is still a mystery how Macron thought it wise to meddle with the security concerns of fellow EU member states on a Monday, with whom he needed to negotiate key French interests from tech regulation to migration and trade policy in Brussels later in the week. The biggest enemy of “EU Renaissance Macron” was not so much Berlin or Warsaw, but rather “Gaullist Macron.”
It took a long while for this realization to sink in in Paris. But it has finally done so. To undo his mistake, Macron proposed to former German Chancellor Angela Merkel last year to Europeanize the dialogue with Russia. And Macron tries to underline his commitment to NATO whenever he can, whether by visiting French NATO troops in the Baltics, offering to boost commitments in the Black Sea, exporting weapons to Kyiv, or supporting the US deterrence strategy in Ukraine crisis early on and vocally. When he addressed the European Parliament, Macron was unequivocal that keeping the peace with Russia cannot come at the price of a Yalta Europe, where Russia is granted zones of influence on the back of the sovereignty of “smaller nations.”
In fact, Macron is much more closely aligned with the United States and the United Kingdom than the other two big EU players, Germany and Italy. The crisis has exposed how Germany is slowly sleepwalking back into a Mittellage, a stance that has never boded well throughout history. It is shocking how not only leading members of the Social Democrats (SPD), but also the Christian Democratic Union’s (CDU) incoming party leader Friedrich Merz and the head of its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), Markus Söder, have openly spoken out against building the strongest possible economic sanctions deterrence. Thus, the party of Konrad Adenauer, the father of Germany’s doctrine of Westbindung, appears to be soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin. Italy’s Mario Draghi, meanwhile, even publicly stated that the EU has little leverage with Russia over Ukraine, as the continent wouldn’t be able to do without Russian gas supplies.
So, if France is once again the more demanding, but ultimately more reliable partner for Washington on the continent, what to make of Macron’s speech to EU lawmakers?
The idea that Europeans should also discuss defense questions in relation to Russia amongst themselves is Macron’s attempt to give a political embodiment to the “EU pillar within NATO” formula, which he has long advocated. It is not about replacing NATO, but about getting Europeans to secure themselves a place at the big negotiating table.
Now there are many reasons for criticizing Macron’s proposal. One can ask whether it is the right moment to push such an initiative when the prime objective should be ensuring the deterrence threat is credible rather than EU foreign policy building. Europeans are also not entirely absent from the negotiations, as there are, in addition to the US-Russia talks, also the NATO and the OSCE tracks. And Macron would probably not get far anyway. Considering the drama in Berlin, Eastern EU member states can hardly be reproached for blocking a bigger role for the EU in Russia relations. And even if all the EU member states were on board to formulate an EU proposal, it is unlikely that they would come up with anything within a useful timeframe.
Possibly, Macron is once again too impatient and too ambitious. It may prove wiser for Paris to use this crisis to continue rebuilding trust with eastern EU members by letting France’s NATO commitments speak for itself—especially now, as Berlin is doing everything it can to snitch the award from Paris as the EU ally least trusted by Eastern EU member states.
But then again, new modes of international cooperation are usually invented in times of crisis. Skeptical countries like Poland have less leverage to slam the door on Paris now, as given Berlin’s and Rome’s flakiness, they need to keep the Western front united. Perhaps there is enough time for an EU- or European-led initiative, as Russia does not yet have the infrastructure in place to launch an imminent offensive—or at least this is what Paris and Berlin think with a view to reviving the “Normandy format,” which includes France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia (talks are supposed to take place in Paris this week).
Finally, not trying to form an EU view is the surest way of never achieving one. The Biden administration has been widely commended for the intensive consultations with its European allies. But there is nonetheless real frustration in EU capitals over being on the sidelines of the Ukraine negotiations as well as the talks about strategic armament and conventional arms control in Europe. Macron’s proposal for the EU to try to formulate its own Russia proposal during his speech was applauded by the MEPs.
It is also true that having Europeans at the major negotiations that relate to their security should be welcomed. Because no one can exclude the possibility today that come 2025, Donald Trump could return to the White House and the US could then exit further Cold War-era armament treaties. After all, two pillars are better than one.
This would force Berlin to finally face its own contradictions and revisit its “having its cake and eating it” approach to foreign and defense policy. Germany will never have an honest domestic debate about this as long as Washington continues to cover all security in the background. If Germany insists on behaving like the aging offspring that simply doesn’t want to leave “Hotel Mama,” the only way to force it grow up is for the parent to gently push it out.
But also because it is exactly what the Russian president would hate to see. It is Moscow that has long refused to attend meetings in the Normandy format. It is Moscow that is trying to undermine the formation of a nascent EU foreign policy whenever it can. Remember when Russia’s foreign minister humiliated the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs publicly in March 2021? Remember also that it was the Soviet Union after World War II that tried to undermine (Western) European integration at every turn, because it diminished Moscow’s influence?
That was also one of the reasons why Washington championed European integration in the post-war era and at times even decisively pushed hesitant and squabbling Europeans to integrate further. Washington should also do this when it comes to EU defense, and in doing so, it would have Paris as a partner. It would take decades to yield anything. But in the long-term, nothing would scare an expansionary-minded Russia more.
Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.