France After the Elections: Foreign Policy Horizons

The preservation of the status quo in France has caused understandable relief in the European establishment, as well as among most of the media: the staunch Europeanist Macron looks to them like a clearly more advantageous figure than Marine Le Pen, who has proposed reformatting the EU into a union of nation states while weakening common institutions, writes Valdai Club expert Alexei Chikhachev. However, today the situation is such that the ideas of the French leader and his colleagues about the near future of the EU are noticeably different.

On April 24, France re-elected its president for the next five years. As predicted by experts, the incumbent head of state Emmanuel Macron retained his position, receiving 27.8% of the vote in the first round and 58.5% of the vote in the second round. Outlining the prospects for his second term, he called it “turbulent and historic”, but while not everything is yet clear about what role he has played in history, the difficulties are already evident: a divided society, an economy slowly emerging from the crisis, unresolved migration issues, and many other problems.   The next test of strength will be the June elections to the National Assembly, where Macron’s party is not by any means guaranteed to win, although it may do so.

However, the president will face no less important tasks not only on the internal, but also on the external circuit. According to the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, it is the head of state who determines the nature of the country’s foreign and defence policy, and since 2017 Macron has repeatedly proved that he is ready to use these powers with great pleasure. He has demonstrated an emphatically active diplomatic style, a desire to go beyond the established framework of thinking, and he has proposed bright concepts (like “NATO’s brain death”). He has attempted to involve France in various groupings of nations, initiatives and processes, if not as a leader, then at least as a noteworthy participant. Taking into account what he has done over the past five years, as well as the strength of traditional continuity for French diplomacy, it seems necessary to generalise what tasks Macron will face after the completion of the electoral cycle.

The priority of European affairs

The preservation of the status quo in France has caused understandable relief in the European establishment, as well as among most of the media: the staunch Europeanist Macron looks to them like a clearly more advantageous figure than Marine Le Pen, who has proposed reformatting the EU into a union of nation states while weakening common institutions. During his first mandate, the president tried to act as the initiator of all major reforms within the European Union, devoting to this a programmatic Sorbonne speech back in 2017, not to mention the current French presidency of the EU Council. [Fedorov S.M. Macron’s “European project”: four years on (French plans and realities of the European Union) // Modern Europe. 2021. No. 5. Pp. 68-78. ] In many respects, it was his suggestion that the terms “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy of the EU” entered the discourse, and its confirmation was suggested to be sought not only in the economy, but also in the defence sphere (the PESCO programme, European Intervention Initiative, etc.). The Europeanism of Macron went so far that he even put an equal sign between the sovereignty of France itself and the success of European integration, believing that the former cannot exist without the latter.

However, today the situation is such that the ideas of the French leader and his colleagues about the near future of the EU are noticeably different. As emphasised by Evgenia Obichkina, Macron is still talking about a “European Europe” that could act as a truly independent player (and in this regard, he successively continues the line of de Gaulle — Mitterrand). In reality, consolidation is taking place on a different basis — a sense of Transatlantic solidarity in the face of the “Russian threat”. Macron has to couple all of his proposals about strengthening the role of the EU with caveats that he is only talking about complementing NATO rather than acting independently of the bloc, emasculating the original meaning of his rhetoric.

Accordingly, the president increasingly finds himself in the unfortunate role of a “lone rider”, whose initiatives are perceived as either too ambitious or leading to the duplication of existing functions. As Thomas Gomart, an international scholar, adds, the lack of internal consensus also reduces the credibility of the French proposals. The head of state takes Europeanist positions, but almost all of his opponents (including those representing the country in the European Parliament) remain Eurosceptics to one degree or another.

The way out of this situation lies through the search for additional allies within the European Union, who would agree with the French vision of the integration process. Indeed, in recent years, Macron has managed to somewhat strengthen ties with the states of Southern Europe: first of all, Italy, with which the so-called Quirinal Treaty of 2021 was signed. He has also made inroads with Greece, which has become a major importer of French military equipment. 

Paris should be expected to continue to be active on this flank, although none of the southern European countries will become an equivalent replacement for the nation’s main partner, Berlin. Obviously, in the next five years, Macron will try to maintain the privileged nature of the dialogue with Germany, which turned out to be in demand, in particular, when developing a pan-European response to the consequences of the Covid-19 crisis. Nevertheless, as the French expert Arnaud Dubien explains, today the Franco-German tandem has acquired an uneven character: for the French, this is precisely a duet of equal powers, while the Germans do not always agree with this interpretation.

As Germany nevertheless begins to increase its economic as well as political influence, this lopsided arrangement, which does not favour France, will become more and more noticeable. If Macron wants to pre-empt this process, he will have to look for a new formula for the tandem right now or even disavow some of the curtsies he made towards Berlin earlier (for example, the hint at the possibility of “Europeanising” the nuclear weapons of the Fifth Republic, sounded in 2020).

Interaction within the EU will remain a natural priority for Paris over the next five years, but it sees relations with Russia as part of European politics in the broadest sense of the word. Here, the president’s options are extremely limited, since for all of the previous five years, he has been trying to strike a delicate balance between maintaining a bilateral dialogue and fulfilling his obligations to Western allies. 

Apparently, this approach will remain convenient for Macron, since it allows him to claim the role of a mediator, to some extent, in the situation around Ukraine, without requiring significant efforts from France itself. Such a line has not brought tangible results (and is unlikely to bring them in the future), but for Moscow it looks somewhat less hostile than the statements made by a number of other European states. This still allows us to hope for the preservation of part of the Russian-French contacts between business and expert circles, as well as NGOs.

Tasks in other regions

At the present stage, France is still positioning itself as a power that retains a so-called global responsibility and, consequently, geographically diverse interests. Therefore, in addition to the European theatre, a number of other regions of the world will remain in the spectrum of areas of Macron’s foreign policy.

First, Paris will have to solve the problem of restructuring the entire system of relations with African states. Macron has already declared his desire to find some new model of relations with Africa, but he outlined its parameters mainly in dotted lines, speaking of equality, recognition of the mistakes of the colonial past and the desire to rely on youth and civil society instead of political elites. Now, these slogans will have to be backed up with substantive content, and most importantly, one way or another, Operation Barkhane, which has been going on in the Sahel since 2014, must be completed. Yielding to the constant accusations of neo-colonialism, Paris is trying to make its policy on the continent more attractive, creating the image not of a “gendarme”, but of a valuable, but not the only partner of African countries. In this regard, for Macron there is a risk of going too far, when the modernisation of relations can spill over into the wholesale curtailment of the French presence, which other players will definitely take advantage of.

A notable trend in recent years has been the attempts of the Fifth Republic to develop contacts with non-Francophone Africa, where the factor of historical memory is not so strong; they will most likely continue in this undertaking.

Second, a rethinking of Paris’ policy in the Middle East is on the agenda. Once an influential regional power, over the past 10-15 years France has lost most of its former positions, having failed to prove itself by resolving conflicts in either Syria or Libya – despite Macron’s mediation attempts in both cases, which did not yield any results. French diplomacy attempts in Lebanon became emblematic of recent failures, when, after the explosion in the Port of Beirut in 2020, Macron demanded that the local authorities quickly form a new cabinet of ministers and carry out structural reforms, which since then, in fact, have failed. In fact, a situation has arisen where the Fifth Republic will have to develop its entire Middle East strategy from scratch in order to determine its priorities and real opportunities against the backdrop of other players in the region becoming more active (primarily Turkey). Until then, the few positive developments for Paris come mainly from local ME arms markets — thanks to new contracts with Qatar, the UAE and others.

Third, there is the question of the further adaptation of the French strategy in the Indo-Pacific. Paris announced its ambitions in this region in 2018, intending to build its own quasi-alliance involving Australia, India and Japan. However, with the creation of AUKUS in 2021, Canberra fell out of this would-be “axis”, and the French, having lost a multi-billion dollar contract for the construction of submarines, received a painful financial and political blow. Now Macron will certainly try to come from the other side, insisting on the expansion of the naval presence of the European Union and the speedy implementation of the new Indo-Pacific strategy of the EU. Germany has already confirmed its interest in the Indo-Pacific with the recent mission of the frigate Bayern. Paris will continue to declare its intention to adhere to a ‘third path’ between the US and China in the Asia-Pacific; however, the feasibility of such a strategy, especially given the participation of all its regional partners in the pro-American QUAD, remains in great doubt.

These are just a few of the foreign policy issues that Macron will have to deal with in the course of his second term, focusing on one main question — whether France is able to find an influential role for itself in the changing world order or it is satisfied with the status of a midsize European power without leadership claims. 

During his first term, Macron demonstrated an understanding of the scale of this problem by trying to get closer to the implementation of the first option, but his own efforts may signify the futility of doing so. At one time, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine spoke about the period immediately after the end of the Cold War: “None of the current changes in the world in any way (diplomatic, trade, military, cultural, linguistic) were favourable for us.”  The modern international context, which is becoming even more complicated, only confirms the relevance of this point, which leaves French foreign policy with extremely narrow room for manoeuvre, no matter who the president of the country is.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.