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Mar 22, 2024

Why Macron’s Ukraine Offensive Is Unlikely to be a Winner at Home

President Emmanuel Macron is hoping that his tougher line vis-à-vis Russia will endear his party to voters. But the French care much less about foreign policy than one might think.

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An illustration of Emmanuel Macron above Montmartre

When Emmanuel Macron provokes an international outcry by declaring NATO “braindead” or not ruling out putting boots on the ground in Ukraine, foreign commentators are usually flabbergasted. What is the French president exactly trying to achieve with these declarations, they ask themselves.

Struggling to find a convincing answer hacks usually resort to the most reliable law of political reporting: the primacy of domestic politics. The argument goes something like this: The French still suffer the phantom pain of no longer being a great power. Macron thus grandstands on the world stage because it is an easy way to score with voters.

They have a point: Tuning in to France’s countless international affairs radio shows one might often think for a split second that one was overhearing a conversation in a 19th century Parisian salon. Moderators ask questions like, “Is the voice of France being heard in the concert of nations?” or, “What can be done to render France more powerful?” Macron says his job is to “defend France’s rank” on the global stage. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen vows to make sure that France will be “respected” again.

For France, foreign policy is not only about the pursuit of national interests. It is also an exercise in identity politics, a performative act underlining that the republic still matters. “Resist!/Prove that you exist!,” France Galle screamed in one of France’s biggest pop hits of the 1980s. Macron is certainly very good at making France exist. No European politician gets this much global media attention.

But the bigger question is: Who is Macron performing for? Do voters really care?

Like a Prayer

The answer is a big no. Foreign policy isn’t front and center for voters in most peace-time democracies, but the lack of interest of the French in what happens beyond their borders is exceptional. And it stands in stark contrast to the country’s elites.

Every student at the elite Sciences Po university can recite by heart former Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin’s speech in the UN Security Council opposing the US invasion in Iraq in 2003 like a prayer. (“In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of a conscience.”) Yet when in 2010 de Villepin tried to leverage his fame to run for the Élysée it was a debacle.

It doesn’t take much to get the French to march against education or tax reform. Hundreds of thousands gather to take a stand against antisemitism. Millions protest after terrorist attacks. But when their president decides to become engaged in a war on a whim—whether that be Nicolas Sarkozy bombing Tripoli in 2011 or François Hollande sending thousands of soldiers to Mali in 2013—no one shows up.

Mainstream media reflect this French apathy toward foreign affairs. When Macron goes on a state visit to China, the main evening news shows will treat this as a 20-second segment before launching a five-minute reportage about real estate prices on the Breton island of Belle-Île-en-mer. In France, the evening news shows dedicate 16 percent of their air time to foreign affairs. In Germany, this is a whooping 50 percent. 53 percent of the French say they occasionally or often discuss European and international politics with friends and family. In Germany this figure rises to 82 percent.

Ignorance Is Bliss

“Ignorance is bliss,” according to the English poet Thomas Gray. But why do the French enjoy it so much? Are world affairs such a non-issue because they have it all?

An extraordinary 37 percent of French people have never been to a foreign country. In Germany this is true for only 18 percent. It is true, with its snow-topped Alps, the tranquil Mediterranean Sea, the bracing Atlantic Ocean, vast plains, deep forests, endless rivers, and bottomless lakes (check out Talloires) France has everything the European continent has to offer in terms of nature. But it takes another level of inwardness to be the world’s most visited country and en même temps bottom of the table in Europe when it comes to English-language skills.

Or is it because in France, which continues to live in the shadow of the Fifth Republic’s founder, Charles de Gaulle, there has for long been a remarkable consensus on foreign and in particular defense policy?

In post-war (West) Germany, Social Democratic (SPD) chancellors from Helmut Schmidt to Olaf Scholz get flack for insisting on not letting down the Federal Republic’s guard. The demonstration-timid Germans have repeatedly taken to the streets by the millions to protest for disarmament. In France, two World Wars have made clear to everyone from far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon to far-right Marine Le Pen that deterrence (and ultimately the nuclear bomb) is the only way to ensure security. There are no pacifists in France.

Force de Tranquillité

The military and the bomb are not only one of the few things that still unites the country. It is also one of the main reasons why the French can afford to be so blasé about world affairs.

A European visiting the US state of Texas may well feel at times some unease about being in a place that hasn’t abolished the death penalty. What if one ends up at the wrong place at the wrong time for some reason? A similar thought crosses one’s mind in Germany these days: Should former US President Donald Trump return to the White House and Russian President Vladimir Putin go ballistic, is the Federal Republic really the place one would want to be?

Living in Paris, one runs the risk of terror attacks to violent demonstrators and anti-riot police, but if the war in Ukraine should get out of control, France will be fine. That might explain why 41 percent of Germans, but only 30 percent of the French, think Europeans should push Kyiv to settle with Russia, according to a poll conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations in January. 

The bomb gives the French a base-line tranquility about world politics. And it is the reason why they can take a laissez-faire approach to their president’s foreign dealings. If Macron wants to give long-range missiles to Kyiv, so be it. Putin’s saber-rattling doesn’t work in France.

Sanssouci

It is when Europe starts getting dangerous that one realizes that France is really the continent’s Schloss Sanssouci—Prussian King Frederick the Great’s summer palace near Berlin where he wanted to reside “without a care.” Today, this is a problem above all for Macron. 

Sure, the French president not excluding sending ground troops to Ukraine in successive interviews is supposed to send a message to Putin: If the Ukrainian front collapses, don’t expect you can march to the Polish border unopposed.

But Macron presenting himself as the staunchest defender of Kyiv is also a campaign tool for the forthcoming European elections in June. His party stands at 20 percent in the polls. This is solid, but still seven percentage points behind the far-right Rassemblement National. Macron once again wants to mobilize the well-educated and well-off French, who care about foreign policy, and voted for him in 2017 and 2022, by playing the Ukraine card. So, when he addressed the nation last week, he argued that the war in Ukraine is existential for France. His party relentlessly attacks Le Pen over her ambiguous Ukraine stance. 

The problem is that Macron’s strategy might allow him to solidify his electoral base, but won’t get him much more than the 20 percent he already has. In recent polls, 50 percent of French voters say purchasing power is one of their top three worries. 38 percent are concerned about the welfare state. By contrast, only 18 percent of the French cited “International crisis: Ukraine and Israel-Palestine.” The French at large may empathize with Ukraine, but they are not completely wrong in assuming that whatever happens in Kyiv, they will be fine.

Moreover, even his own electorate, more attuned to foreign affairs, is skeptical of the president’s stance. 76 percent of the French and 68 percent of voters for his Renaissance party are against sending French troops to Ukraine, polls show.

The nuclear bomb is a double-edged sword, it seems. It gives Macron a range of action, as it renders him and the population immune to Putin’s scare tactics. But at the same time, it gives the navel-gazing French another reason to disengage from what happens abroad. That is a lesson French politicians keep forgetting when repeating the mistake of trying to make a career based on foreign policy successes.

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president.

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