The Ten Main Defense Challenges Facing Macron’s France


Emmanuel Macron will be the next president of France. For the first time in the history of the Fifth Republic (since 1958), both final candidates were outside the bipolar, mainstream left-right party system. The winner, France’s youngest-ever president, has never held elected office before, and is not a member of any political party. That is indeed a political “revolution” — the title of his campaign book.

Now is the time to consider the main defense challenges France will face with Macron at the helm. Although the unexpected twists and turns of recent history demand a certain humility when making forecasts, one can still wager that geopolitics will remain eventful over the next five years. Below are the ten main defense challenges, in no particular order, that await the presidency of Macron.

1. Funding France’s ambitions

Money is clearly crucial to meeting France’s defense needs. With the 2015 terrorist attacks in the background, the updated 2014-2019 military planning law ended the 35-year long decline in the defense budget, increasing it by 3.8 billion euros for the 2016-2019 period. However, the recent multiple and inter-linked crises with security implications at home and overseas are not a flash in the pan. They are the new normal, and France must prepare a sustained response.

As a presidential candidate, Macron committed to progressively raise the defense budget to meet NATO’s defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP by 2025. French defense spending is currently at 1.79 percent of GDP, and currently only the United States, Greece, Estonia, the United Kingdom, and Poland meet the 2 percent standard. An increase aims to recover lost capacities and renew used equipment. This is indeed possible for France to achieve, but presents questions of budgetary sustainability and expenditure prioritization with which Macron will have to grapple.

2. After Sentinelle

Justified by the state of emergency in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks, Operation Sentinelle, in which French soldiers patrol the streets and protect sensitive sites, currently mobilizes 10,000 military personnel, including 3,000 reservists. This has been a notable evolution in France’s domestic use of land forces. Such operations have been regulars since Vigipirate, the anti-terrorist plan put in place following the 1995 Paris bomb attacks, but this time it is on such a large scale that it represents a change in paradigm. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, France is deploying more troops at home than on operations abroad (excluding prepositioned forces in overseas military bases).

This presents a number of challenges, including the accelerated fatigue of units, training deficiencies, and the erosion of army operational capacities. It also implies ensuring complementarity between the army and internal security forces, improving civil-military cooperation, and adapting the legal framework. Certain voices criticize the arrangement for being costly, ineffective, or even counterproductive. In September 2016, Sentinelle was “dynamized,” meaning that most patrols are now mobile and circulate randomly. This is supposed to increase deterrence and decrease troops’ vulnerability, but it also accelerates their fatigue as each soldier may now walk up to 100 kilometers in four consecutive days.

Among Macron’s challenges in the next five years will be to address these concerns, perhaps by proposing another model for securing the streets and deterring potential attacks that is more sustainable for the French Army and its operational readiness. To this aim, a National Guard was created in October 2016, whose objective is by 2018 to combine 85,000 personnel, reservists from the Ministry of Defense, the National Gendarmerie, and the National Police. This force will be an important step forward. Yet it also poses a number of challenges, including financing, training, infrastructure, and rules of engagement.

3. Renewing the nuclear forces

All the P5 countries are modernizing their nuclear weapons. This is for two reasons. First, the hardware of these arsenals is approaching obsolescence. Second, nuclear weapons states feel the need to adapt to a changing global environment defined by the rapid growth and range of defensive capacities as well as the related proliferation of anti-access/area denial systems. France is not immune to either of these and is therefore engaged in renewing the two components of its nuclear deterrent: airborne and naval. Pursuing this project, while controlling the cost, will be a key challenge of the next five years. In particular, the new president will need to select the next airborne nuclear warhead to be delivered between 2035 and 2040.

One parliamentary report predicts that the annual cost of nuclear deterrence could jump from 3.5 billion euros in 2016 to almost 6 billion in 2025. This investment should take place without harming the balance between the airborne and naval components. It should also not cannibalize conventional and security forces which do not respond to the same threats, and should themselves be renewed (another challenge). Therefore, renewing France’s nuclear forces will require an increase in the defense budget. The difficulty of such an increase should not be exaggerated. As the authors of the parliamentary report recall, “a euro invested in nuclear deterrence generates twenty euros in the economy.” Even if that specific amount seems overestimated, the general idea is correct.

Arguing in favor of the modernization of France’s strategic forces will take place in a difficult context, not only due to national budgetary constraints but also the evolution of the global debate on nuclear weapons. Consolidated since 2010 by an important group of states (159 states in 2015) called the “Humanitarian Initiative”, with the support of a number of NGOs, U.N. agencies, and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the international movement against nuclear weapons is growing. It recently obtained nuclear ban talks at the United Nations: A conference “to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination” started in March and will continue this summer at the U.N. General Assembly — without the participation of France nor any nuclear weapons states. While disarmers will have a platform to communicate, the challenge will be to convince the public of a potentially counter-intuitive reality: Banning nuclear weapons would leave the world not safer, but less secure.

4. The Russian offensive

Since 2014, Russia’s rearmament and its willingness to use military force to assert its views and regain its status have placed Moscow back at the center of the global chessboard. This presents a dual threat to Europe: On one hand, the annexation of Crimea and the destabilization of eastern Ukraine shows that the Russian threat to European territory has returned. Nuclear intimidation, access denial by the deployment of offensive and defensive systems, notably around the Baltic countries, and the demonstration of a capacity for multiple deployments (Ukraine and Syria) make this threat credible while also calling NATO’s credibility and preparedness into question.

On the other hand, Russia’s evolving strategies of influence present a subtler threat. The West has a narrower definition of war and hence encounters numerous difficulties in responding to psychological actions which do not strictly reach the threshold of war. Russia, however, utilizes a continuum of tactics and even builds ambiguity into its doctrine. The West also shares a compartmentalized vision of the informational field, distinguishing cyber-security — often reduced to the risk of cyberattacks on critical infrastructure — from media-related actions.  Russia, inversely, has a comprehensive vision of what they have called since the 1950s, “the informational environment” — a continuum linking political communication, disinformation, and destabilizing elections. It is no coincidence that the massive hack that targeted the Macron campaign two days before the final vote points to the same Russian-backed group behind the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leak.

France is especially vulnerable to Russian influence because an important part of its population has a certain fascination with Putin, which is not unrelated to the French weakness for strong leaders or the myth of providential men. Out of the four main contenders for this presidential election, Macron was the only one who criticized Putin’s regime, and that is why he was targeted. All others called for the lifting of sanctions against Russia. At least two denied the annexation of Crimea, and the third was pretty ambiguous about it. One — the National Front of finalist Marine Le Pen — was even financed by Russia.

Facing information warfare, the challenge for France and its allies is to calibrate the response. Liberal democracies, already weakened by the “post-truth” era and “alternative facts,” are limited in this asymmetric war by an attachment to their values which prevent them from engaging in “counterpropaganda.”

5. Euro-Atlantic unity

One of the main challenges of the upcoming years in Europe will be managing Brexit and its consequences. Franco-British cooperation must be preserved. At the same time, the United Kingdom’s retreat could open a space for Germany, despite the fact that its 1.2 percent of GDP defense budget is far below the 2 percent NATO target. Italy could also play a more prominent role. It is already assuming several important responsibilities (Libya, migrants, arming Reaper drones, and the Eurodrone project).

NATO’s biggest challenge may not be external, but internal. Firstly, there are uncertainties about President Trump’s NATO policy — although Secretary of Defense James Mattis has since reassured America’s allies, Trump initially expressed doubts about the relevance of NATO and the automaticity of Article 5. Secondly, nationalism is rising. Most worrying is Turkey’s authoritarian drift and its rapprochement with Russia, but there are also illiberal drifts in Europe (Hungary, Poland), and sovereignist and nationalist movements, including in France. Marine Le Pen was defeated but her score (33.9 percent, with 10.6 million votes) is a historic high for the National Front.

Little has been said about these weaknesses in the 2016 NATO’s Warsaw Summit, and yet they have real consequences for NATO’s credibility. If they come to power, these movements could break up the alliance, which is supposed to be based on the sharing and promotion of democratic values. These illiberal drifts and changes in identity benefit the Russians in two ways: directly, by adopting their values and empowering their political networks, and indirectly by stripping the alliance of its democratic and liberal identity, making it appear no longer a community of values, but solely as a military alliance, and therefore more aggressive, which strengthens the Russian narrative.

6. The Syrian trap

France always had a tough stance on Syria: It was one of the first to call for Assad’s departure and it almost intervened following the chemical attacks of August 2013. Moreover, French forces have been striking the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria since September 2015. The Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier was also the first non-American ship to command the Naval Task Force in the Persian Gulf. Such involvement is due to a number of reasons. Some are related to this particular theater, such as history and links with terrorist attacks on the French territory. Other reasons are more related to French military interventionism, which is nothing new. However, military operations are necessary but certainly insufficient. In Syria, Iraq, and the Sahel (see below), the challenge is the same: finding the political leverage to avoid seeing these areas devolve into some kind of long-lasting chaos.

The Syrian government and their Russian sponsors have largely succeeded in neutering every major opposition group that stands between Assad and jihadists. What is left of the so-called moderate opposition melted into the countryside or fights alongside actors the West considers unacceptable, like the al-Qaeda aligned Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The Islamic State is a long-term problem, but a short and medium-term opportunity: Assad needs them for reasons both material (buying their oil, which makes the Syrian regime the Islamic State’s main source of income), and political (using them as a scarecrow to foster support for his regime, the “me or chaos” narrative).

Therefore, it is not in Damascus’ interest that Raqqa falls too early. In any case, the Islamic State will survive the recapture of Mosul and Raqqa. Some of its forces will retreat to other safe-havens in the Middle East and North Africa. Those that stay in Syria and Iraq will go underground, returning the group to its clandestine roots.

Furthermore, Russia — which is looking for an exit strategy — will not necessarily help, as it would be satisfied with a fragmentation so long as it preserves the “useful Syria” — the Assad-controlled areas in the west. Indeed, the Syrian regime has even started to alter the country’s demographics, evicting Sunnis from the Damas-Latakia strategic axis, while their Iranian ally is apparently repopulating some areas with Shia.

However, if the Sunni majority is condemned to wander a “Sunnistan”, caught in the pincers of Shia powers — or those perceived as such, like Baghdad and Damascus — it will represent a return to the pre-Islamic State situation, with all the ingredients of a permanent war. The only winner of the situation would be Iran, consolidating an Iraq-Syria-Lebanon axis.

7. The Stability of the Sahel

French Operation Serval (January 2013-August 2014) against Islamist militants in northern Mali is often considered a success and even a “model.” However, the fact that the bloodiest attack in Mali’s recent history took place early this year at Gao (77 deaths), and that it was exclusively directed against Malians, confirms that, four years after Operation Serval, Mali still lacks stability and unity.

The 2015 peace agreement has yet to be fully implemented. The U.N. mission (MINUSMA) is inadequate, not only because it lacks human and material resources, but above all because a peacekeeping operation should not be expected to perform counter-terrorist operations. Its personnel are predictably paying the price: This is the most dangerous of ongoing U.N. operations, with 116 fatalities.

Following the north, it is now central Mali which is also suffering a deterioration of security that spills across the porous borders to Burkina Faso and Niger. Aware that the situation could become even worse, the heads of state of the “Sahel G5” (Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger) are demanding a regional counter-terrorism force. Although, if it involves the same actors already deployed with the same resources, one might ask what more it would contribute. In this context, the stabilization of Mali and the other Sahel countries greatly depends on France’s involvement (Operation Barkhane). The challenge for France in the coming years is to convert its tactical successes into strategic success while avoiding stalemate.

The task is not only to control an arid area of the size of Western Europe, but also to address the structural causes. Terrorism flourishes on a bed of insufficient public services and a crisis of confidence towards the state. Improving the fight against terrorism in the Sahelo-Saharan band, like elsewhere, depends on a “comprehensive approach.” The French chief of defense insists that “there can neither be sustainable peace without development, nor sustainable development without peace.” With the current development efforts being undermined by widespread corruption, there can also neither be development without good governance, nor vice versa.

8. The Libyan slippery slope

France is much preoccupied by the situation in Libya, not only because of the potential security threats in terms of terrorism and migration, but also because it pushed for the 2011 international military intervention, and therefore participated, with the United Kingdom, the United States, and other countries, in the post- Gaddafi transition. They now have a “second chance in Libya” to “intervene better.” Any military action should only be part of a comprehensive approach involving political and civilian instruments — which in particular must include a robust post-conflict stabilization strategy.

The Government of National Accord (GNA), with Faiez Serraj as its head, has been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council as the sole legitimate government of Libya, but is still facing the opposition of two rival governments (Ghawil’s National Salvation Government and a pro-General Haftar government led by Abdullah alThani). The country remains fragmented between political groups, which — along with these three governments — also include local powers such as “city-states” and tribes. It is also plagued by dozens of armed groups and militias fighting for control over territory and resources.

For France and its allies supporting the GNA, there will be a number of challenges in the coming years. One is the security situation in the capital city Tripoli, conditioning the return of diplomatic missions. It improved since the cease-fire (implemented since March 15) and the expulsion of Sarraj’s rival, Khalifa al-Ghawil, who fled to Misrata. The current project of establishing a presidential guard with the support of France will help consolidate security in Tripoli and its surroundings. However, the economic situation is still very poor — partly due to the dispute between the Presidential Council and the National Oil Corporation, in which French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve intervened to support the Presidential Council.

Another challenge is the Islamic State, which was recently chased away from Sirte and which could disperse in the Tripolitania (West) region. A number of foreign special operations troops have been helping the Libyans in that fight. They sometimes have to rely on local armed groups and when doing so, especially in the east, the challenge is to make clear that such cooperation is not political support. If political support is implied, it would only accentuate the divisions and undermine the parallel efforts of the international community to promote national unity, by supporting the GNA. Disconnecting counterterrorism from the political process is counterproductive for both.

Last, but not least, another challenge is the degradation of the situation in the South (Fezzan) since March 20. An offensive by Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) against the “Third Force” — a pro-GNA Misratan Militia — exacerbated an already tense situation in this region which has always been characterized by the state’s absence, important natural resources, ethnic rivalries (between Tuaregs and Tubus for instance), and various forms of illicit traffic. The challenge for the GNA and Misrata is to resist Haftar’s provocations and an escalation which could turn into civil war. An additional factor of destabilization is the inflow of foreign mercenaries from Chad and neighboring countries, joining Haftar’s LNA.

Haftar is apparently softening his position under the double pressure of the international community and of his own population in the East, which is suffering from the dire economic situation. He could recognize the Skhirat agreement as a starting point for any future negotiation, and he recently met with Sarraj. This is not sufficient, as the political dialogue needs to include more parties, starting with the powerful city of Misrata, but it certainly is a good start.

9. Pacific presence

China’s rise concerns its neighbors all the more since Trump’s election, which casts doubt over the future of the “Asian pivot” announced by his predecessor. Washington’s investment in this region, which has been stabilized by American hegemony for decades, is relatively unpredictable, even though nothing at this stage suggests a disengagement.

In this context, Japan, India, South Korea, and Taiwan are turning to Europe. In particular, they are turning to France which, besides the United Kingdom, is the only global European military power and the only one determined to reinforce its presence in the Indo-Pacific region, now the world’s economic center of gravity. French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian — the most active European Defense minister in the Shangri-La Dialogue — had announced at this gathering in 2012 a new engagement for France in the security of the Asia/Pacific region and a desire to concretely assert itself as “a fully-committed partner.” Indeed, from March to July the 2017 Mission Jeanne d’Arc — including the amphibious assault ship FS Mistral, the frigate Courbet and two Royal Navy Merlin helicopters — is currently deployed in the Indo-Pacific region.

France’s defense role in the region is nothing new, and Paris acknowledges having “started to rebalance its strategic centre of gravity towards the Indo-Pacific.” France has strategic interests in the region: Eighty-five percent of its exclusive economic zone is situated in the Indian and Pacific Oceans and it has overseas departments and territories as well as a permanent military presence in the region. France is also part of the south Pacific quadrilateral alliance with the United States, Australia and New Zealand. French interests are also motivated by the region’s economic dynamism and the presence of geopolitical nodes (80 percent of global maritime traffic passes through the South China Sea, for example).

The increasing expectations of France and rising maritime tensions in the region, at the same time an aircraft carrier arms race is starting — with China launching its second (and first domestically-built one), India building its third (its first nuclear-powered carrier), while France’s only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is in drydock for an 18-month refit and upgrade — are already refueling the debate on the necessity of a sister ship (and its cost, which includes that of additional crew, fighter jets, and escort ships).

10. The North Korean dilemma

The North Korean nuclear issue is less a direct concern for France than for its allies in the region. However, because of the gravity of its potential implications on stability and trade, France’s interests in Asia,  and its multilateral dimension, the issue deserves to be near the top of Macron’s defense preoccupations. France is strongly committed to strengthening the non-proliferation regime. Through the U.N. Security Council and the European Union, it supports the international sanctions against North Korea.

Pyongyang has accelerated its nuclear and ballistic programs in 2016 with two tests, including a 10 kiloton weapon in September, 21 missile launches, and the launch of a satellite into orbit, indicating an imminent ability to design intercontinental ballistic missiles. It aims at operationalization as soon as possible. There remains uncertainty over its capacity to develop miniaturized nuclear warheads to fit its ballistic missiles, but everything suggests that the regime could possess an operational nuclear weapon able to reach the United States in a matter of years. It will be all the more difficult to convince Pyongyang to renounce an objective that now appears to be attainable. Nothing at this stage suggests that sanctions and diplomatic pressure will be able to stop the regime.

The international community will soon confront a dilemma: One path is to recognize that North Korea is a nuclear state, at the risk of weakening the Non-Proliferation Treaty and, above all, allowing an existential threat to loom over Seoul and the region. The other path is to preventively intervene, which would be considerably hazardous both in the act and in a potential ensuing occupation phase. The third and most likely path is, of course, to continue to muddle along and hope nothing terrible happens.

If it is rational, the North Korean regime will attempt to identify the threshold for American intolerance, which is probably the acquisition of an intercontinental nuclear capacity, and will ensure it remains just below it to wield the greatest possible leverage in negotiations without risking annihilation. However, if its only objective is to get the bomb, there is little to negotiate. Moreover, with the Trump administration, it is not certain that the red lines will be clear. The confrontation of two unpredictable leaders could end badly.

France Looking Forward

This list of challenges for France in the next five years is by no means comprehensive. There are and will be many other threats and opportunities that present themselves. Some, we can anticipate. For instance, it is critical for France to be vigilant about Iran and its ambitions. The 2015 nuclear deal was not a tranquilizer, as Tehran’s ballistic program and destabilizing regional role are still very worrying. Matters like cybersecurity, chemical weapons, access to crucial rare earth resources and the militarization of space for instance, will also likely weigh on the French president in the years to come. Militarily and industrially, France will not have the luxury of isolation. It will need Europe and its allies. The most open to the world and pro-European of all the presidential candidates, Emmanuel Macron certainly is the right man for the job.


Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer is the Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies (IRSEM, French Ministry of Defense). The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent those of any institution to which he is or was affiliated. A previous and shorter version of this paper was published in French in Défense & Sécurité Internationales, 128, March-April 2017, p. 40-44.