Between Autonomy and Cooperation: The Role of Allies in France’s New Defense Strategy


“We need to find support everywhere we can,” French Minister for the Armed Forces Florence Parly said during a conference at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies in late October. Her comments exemplified the tension between France’s ambitions for autonomy in its security and defense policy and the need to work with allies — particularly in the fight against terrorism.

The delicate balance between strategic autonomy and cooperation with European partners has created unresolved tensions in French strategy for the past 60 years. This tension has increased in the context of a worsened security environment and doubt about the strength of the transatlantic relationship.

With a renewed focus on national security, and terrorism in particular, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has designed a new strategy to square the circle and move towards a new form of cooperation with allies that is geared towards meeting France’s strategic objectives. The French government’s 2017 Strategic Review endorses “minilateralism,” or cooperation in smaller groups below the level of NATO or the European Union, as a way for Europe to develop autonomous capabilities and provide support to France in fighting terrorism, especially in Africa.

France: Ambitious, But Threatened and Overstretched

The need to write a new defense and security review stems from the acknowledgment that today France is more directly exposed to the threats that were first envisaged in the 2013 White Paper, the most recent predecessor of the 2017 review. That document mostly took stock of the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on France’s defense and security. Threats were portrayed as potential causes for concern, but not particularly imminent: “Strategic surprises or even shifts [were] possible and even probable.” In 2017, these fears have become reality, as Parly acknowledges in her foreword: “The threats and risks identified in the 2013 white paper have manifested themselves more rapidly and with a greater intensity than what was anticipated.”

The most direct threat to French territory and security is clearly terrorism. The review identifies a shift in the nature of the threat, citing the new military-type competencies and weapons seen during the November 2015 Paris terror attacks as well as in attacks in Africa and the Middle East, where ISIL and other jihadi groups have been established and are continuing to spread. The challenges of the refugee crisis and the fear of the return of jihadi fighters also contribute to making the Sahel, the Levant, and the Mediterranean Sea primary causes for concern.

As Guillaume Lasconjarias and Florent de Saint Victor have explained in War on the Rocks, the strategy is ambitious. Despite France’s strong ambitions, however, the review notes that the country is already engaged on many fronts, which has led to it to exceed the “operational contract” initially planned for French armed forces. This has come with difficulties in terms of training and support. Partners are thus essential for conducting military interventions, gathering intelligence, and developing capabilities.

“Europeans Are Now a Bit Lonelier Than They Used to Be”

Although France has traditionally been a pro-European, “Atlantico-skeptic” power, the two previous governments invested substantially in a renewed and reinforced strategic partnership with the United States. In the past decade, frustration with partners’ meager appetite for “European defense” led Sarkozy and Hollande to lower their ambitions vis-à-vis what the EU could do, and to turn instead towards NATO and stronger relationships with the United States and the United Kingdom.

The new Strategic Review points toward a slow reversal of those trends. The document underlines the role NATO is playing in Eastern Europe through Enhanced Forward Presence, and in the Mediterranean through naval deployments. It also acknowledges that the United States ranks first among France’s allies in the Sahel and in the Middle East, and says the government intends to maintain the “particular cooperation” with this “fundamental partner” in the areas of operations and intelligence. This is an acknowledgment that Paris and Washington have enjoyed a renewed alliance over the past few years. Cooperation between the two countries for a good part occurs under the radar. Parly expressed a wish at the conference that “one day perhaps all the untold stories of this cooperation will be told and that day we will have reasons will be proud.”

This acknowledgement of strong bilateral relations on counter-terrorism suggests that maintaining American engagement is vital for France’s operations in the Sahel, and a key priority, as recent attempts to get Washington’s support for the G5 have shown.

The call for support comes at a time when, as Parly explains, France’s alliances “have evolved.” She writes in the foreword: “We can no longer be certain to count, everywhere and always, on our traditional partners.” It is difficult not to see here an implicit reference to the current U.S. presidential administration. Indeed, the review expresses regrets that the United States is “resorting to unilateral action,” showing reluctance to ratify constraining agreements, and reducing its contribution to multilateral tools and institutions, including UN peacekeeping missions. Thus, the review goes on, “recent political evolutions in the United States prompt, more than in the past, deep interrogations in Europe” about the strength of the transatlantic relationship.

A New Strategy for European Cooperation

The current domestic context in the United States has arguably encouraged a return to a more traditional stance towards partnerships — that is, partnerships with continental Europe. Taking this position is made easier by the perception that Europeans today care more about security — exemplified by the commitment of several European countries to increase their defense budget — while also sharing France’s security interests, including those in Africa. Indeed, while France had perceived itself to be strategically isolated on that front, especially in the Central African Republic, the review argues that other European countries are becoming increasingly conscious of security challenges in Africa and have a role to play, particularly in Mali.

While the bid for more European cooperation in defense and security is not new, the new document spells it out in a new way that vows for effectiveness and minilateralism. This refers to cooperation in small groups rather than across all EU or NATO member states, intended to complement the latter.

In the field of armaments, the review insists that any cooperative project must be based on a clear convergence of goals and add to France’s military capabilities. Taking lessons from past efforts, the review argues that cooperation should be carried out only when there is enough similarity in requirements and calendars, when it makes an operational contribution, and when jointly developed weapon programs are not a barrier to exports.

When it comes to how cooperation in Europe should actually be structured, the Strategic Review calls for differentiated cooperation. This means that instead of hoping for 28 European member-states to gather around loose political commitments, cooperation is to occur at different speeds and in smaller groups, which is believed to be more efficient. This is a new stance that takes stock of the forms of defense cooperation that have been developing de facto in Europe over the last decade. The review recognizes that bilateral and minilateral cooperation constitute “useful” additions to the European security architecture and, if managed well, will help increase the continent’s capacities.

These types of cooperation occur either within or outside NATO and the EU, and include NATO’s “Framework Nations Concept,” on which Germany and the United Kingdom have taken leading roles, as well as autonomous regional groupings such as the Nordic Defence Cooperation and the European Air Transport Command. The latest instance is Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a framework under the auspices of the European Union that is currently being negotiated in Brussels and that France has been pushing over the past year.

Britain and Germany

Bilaterally, Germany and the United Kingdom remain France’s favored partners in Europe.

There is new hope in France for effective defense and security cooperation with Germany. It is expected that Berlin’s commitment in the Levant and the Sahel as well as current procurement and industrial projects underpin a more assertive Germany, which could bring the partnership to the level necessary to face current challenges. Germany has also taken the lead with France to launch PESCO and as such, remains one of France’s key partners in the EU.

It is interesting to note that while Britain retains a special place, the Strategic Review lists it after Germany and expresses no new ambitions for the French-U.K. partnership, contrary to the two previous white papers. Nonetheless, the document affirms that despite Brexit, the relationship with London remains central for all areas of defense. The partnership rests on shared global ambitions, the possession of a nuclear deterrent, and the ability to carry out high-intensity operations, and will remain strong.

A major part of France’s partnerships with both countries are major ongoing cooperation programs in the areas of capabilities, including the “Future Combat Air System” (FCAS) and “One Complex Weapons” with Britain, and MALE drones and battle tanks with Germany.

While there is room for trilateralism between Paris, London, and Berlin — the strategy mentions intelligence cooperation in this regard — there can be competition too. This was illustrated this summer when France and Germany declared their intent for a future combat aircraft system, seemingly replicating or potentially replacing the Franco-British FCAS project.

The European Intervention Initiative

As a way to achieve more effective cooperation with Europeans, the review indicates that France will focus on those “most willing and able” to join Paris around a European Intervention Initiative. The initiative should have a common doctrine and budgetary instruments to reinforce interoperability among European forces and give them a credible capacity for military intervention. It is not conceived as an alternative to NATO. Instead, as Parly suggested, it would be a way for Europeans to “contribute more” to the alliance and could in fact be “combined” with NATO.

The initiative comes alongside recent announcements in Brussels that indicate concrete steps towards enhancing Europe’s capacities: the publication of a European Global Strategy, the creation of a European defense fund to encourage cross-border cooperation on armaments, and the implementation of PESCO.

For France, all of these initiatives are an opportunity to bolster, not undermine, the concept of “strategic autonomy.” Given France’s ambitions and current military overstretch, efforts at the European level are actually a way to ensure national strategic autonomy. The European initiatives complement or add to France’s forces to allow it to conduct its missions. Parly illustrated the future role of the European Intervention Initiative with the case of Mali. It thus looks like the initiative could be a way to make Europeans converge around France’s military culture.

The minister affirmed that “Italy, Germany and Spain are our best support in Europe to try and build the initiative we are trying to promote.” But observers may wonder what France hopes to do with other European countries that are able — and potentially willing — to conduct such missions, including Denmark, the Netherlands, and last but not least, the United Kingdom.

Challenges Ahead

The Strategic Review has outlined a new French strategy for conducting defense cooperation that is aimed at gathering specific contributions for France’s operations and at developing weapon programs in areas where France does not possess industrial sovereignty.

A few points remain to be settled. First, France needs to reconcile the short-term requirement for support in the face of immediate threats and the necessarily longer-term process of fostering defense research and capabilities, as well as operational convergence. But framing European ambition chiefly through the lens of France’s security interests and capabilities, while understandable, will not necessarily garner support from all the desired partners. This suggests that France still has more to do to square the desire to flex its muscles with its overtures to potential partners. Second, the government should plan how to articulate the various initiatives, especially PESCO, the NATO Framework Nation Concept, the Intervention Initiative, and France’s bilateral links with Britain. These all occur under different institutional frameworks. To achieve more effective cooperation and not scatter its limited resources, Macron’s government needs to map out a clearer intent and build bridges between its various bilateral, minilateral, and multilateral partnerships.


Alice Pannier is Assistant Professor of European Studies and International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Her research and teaching interests cover security and defense cooperation in Europe, French and British defense policies, and transatlantic relations. She was recently awarded the EU Global Strategy Ph.D. Prize for her thesis on Anglo-French defense cooperation.

Image: French Armed Forces