How to Save French Credibility from Macron
On paper, France has everything it needs to be a credible leader on European foreign policy. It is a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a nuclear power, it has the European Union’s most capable military, and has an excellent diplomatic network. Moreover, Paris often presents concrete and valuable initiatives for European security and defense. However, France also has one problem that undermines all of this: President Emmanuel Macron’s communication style.
After his recent visit to Beijing, Macron did it again. In an interview with the French newspaper Les Echos, he made comments on strategic autonomy in the context of Taiwan and China. His analysis of the situation around Taiwan — repeating the Chinese narrative of “unity” with Taiwan, and speaking about an “American rhythm and a Chinese over-reaction” —sparked harsh criticism from experts because of its analytical inaccuracy. But his comments also diverged from the general consensus among European allies and the United States, as well as the French government’s own approach to the region. Even if Macron corrected his formulations a few days later and clearly confirmed the official French line, a bitter taste remains. While France’s China policy had not been the major issue for criticism before the visit, other E.U. members now increasingly see France as undermining efforts to forge a common approach to Beijing.
The substance of Macron’s comments with regard to European strategic autonomy — particularly the need for Europeans to define their own strategy based on European interests — was not necessarily shocking. If Europe does not want to fall victim to U.S.-Chinese competition, it will indeed have to find its own strategy, based on its own, distinctly European interests, and equip itself with the tools to pursue this strategy. Still, the tone and timing were guaranteed to alienate France’s allies. At a moment when the United States has reaffirmed its commitment to European security through its extensive military support for Ukraine, Macron’s calls for strategic autonomy particularly alarmed Eastern European partners.
Macron forces Europeans to have necessary debates on strategic autonomy. But his method for doing so significantly harms the French credibility and confirms the impression that France is hijacking the European Union to prop up French foreign policy. Rather than presenting ambitious and theoretical concepts for European security in presidential speeches and interviews alone, Paris should showcase its success in advancing European policy through concrete initiatives such as the European Political Community, or a special tribunal on war crimes in Ukraine. Coupled with more active diplomatic engagement in strategic debates in Europe and Washington, this could help to solidify the leadership role that Macron craves and that France deserves.
The Many Perceived Misrepresentations of France’s Foreign Policy
Macron’s recent comments come at a time when France had been struggling to affirm its place as a leader in European security and defense. France was not the only member state that underestimated Eastern European warnings about Russia. Germany’s enduring links with Russia, for example, put Berlin in a similarly difficult position vis-à-vis Eastern European partners. Nevertheless, there was a crucial difference in regard to both countries’ role in European defense. Germany has long been known for a strategic culture of military restraint, while Macron championed the idea of a more militarily sovereign Europe. Based on this narrative, France could have assumed its natural role as a leader in European security and defense at this watershed moment. But it did not. As a result, in 2022 it looked to some commentators like France was talking the talk on European security, but not walking the walk.
Macron’s Taiwan comments help to demonstrate how this impression has been fostered by a broader misunderstanding of France’s strategic thinking.
Particularly confusing for France’s partners is Paris’s understanding of itself as a “puissance d’équilibre,” or a power of the balance. For France, this approach implies that the country has clear allies, but that enemies of France’s allies do not automatically become France’s enemies. France is a reliable partner, but it reserves the option of conducting bilateral relations primarily according to its own interests. Not surprisingly, for many partners, this concept is problematic. Despite French insistence to the contrary, the concept is sometimes interpreted as equidistance between the United States and China, and hence sparks questions regarding France’s commitment to its alliances.
Needless to say, evoking this concept in the context of Russia’s war against Ukraine was not well-received. In Paris, the dialogue between Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which continued after the start of the invasion, was seen as a way to put puissance d’équilibre into practice by maintaining a channel of communication with Moscow. In Eastern Europe, by contrast, this discourse sparked massive criticism and accusations that France was downplaying Moscow’s aggression. Things could have been different if Macron had indeed stopped Putin. But he didn’t. Now, this approach continues to raise eyebrows when it comes to dealing with China. Macron has reminded his allies that France supports the status quo concerning Taiwan and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. But as long as the government continues to talk about puissance d’équilibre, they will remain skeptical.
There’s another problem beyond this as well. The French agenda of European strategic autonomy was never accepted as a truly European agenda by countries in Eastern Europe. The French government stressed that strategic autonomy aimed to make Europeans step up their capacity to act in international affairs, with partners whenever possible and alone whenever necessary. But the term “autonomy” sparked doubts about France’s willingness to work with the United States, and about its willingness to work on security and defense cooperation within NATO. Macron’s claim that NATO was “braindead” was interpreted to mean that NATO was already dead, even though his actual point was about a lack of new ideas and joint thinking. In this context, countries that already worried that France was hijacking E.U. structures to push its own agenda came to see the whole concept of strategic autonomy in a more negative light. Now Eastern European countries that continue to rely on U.S. security protection worry that France is trying to impose its vision of the continent on them.
Making things worse, diplomats in Paris have also been frustrated with Macron’s approach of playing the disrupter. When he speculated aloud about “security guarantees for Russia” or stated that “Russia must not be humiliated,” he caused headaches for the foreign ministry officials left doing damage control. Those of us following French foreign and security policy become, once more, Macron-explainers. And even as we all work to explain what the president really meant, his words continue to shape the public debate. As a result, France will now need to do considerable work if it wishes to restore its lost credibility.
Restoring French Credibility as a “Puissance d’Initiatives”
Macron’s miscommunications have increased the gap between perceptions and actual French foreign policy. In many areas of international affairs, France is indeed walking the walk. In terms of total assistance for Ukraine, France ranks among the top ten individual countries. Macron’s speech at the 2023 Munich Security Conference, where he explicitly said that “Russia must not win this war,” was unambiguous in pushing a new and clear narrative. Furthermore, France is the leading E.U. state in the Indo-Pacific, where it regularly deploys military assets. Indeed, at the very moment when Macron’s comments on Taiwan raised eyebrows, a French warship was on patrol in the Taiwan Strait.
Rendering these concrete measures more visible should be the first step in improving French credibility. More can also be done to reconceptualize France’s role in European defense. French initiatives like the European Peace Facility or the European Defence Fund have proven their relevance in recent years. Instead of clinging to the concept of puissance d’équilibre, which is salient in theory but not helpful in practice, France should focus on the power of its initiatives.
Consider some examples. The European Political Community, a brainchild of Macron, has already brought together European countries outside the framework of either the European Union or NATO to address security, energy, and economic issues. France has also been a leader in pushing for a special tribunal to address war crimes committed in Ukraine. Beyond Europe, Paris also took the lead in establishing the European Union’s guidelines on the Indo-Pacific in 2021 and launching the E.U. Interministerial Forum on Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, France used its recent E.U. presidency to build consensus around a number of initiatives to meaningfully enhance European sovereignty. Notably, the March 2022 Versailles Declaration formalized the European Union’s ambitions to jointly bolster defense capacities.
However, the best initiatives will not help if misperceptions of Macron’s worldview persist. This means that French diplomats, parliamentarians, and foreign policy experts will have to swallow their frustration and do even more. French representatives are less active in international conferences or think tank events than their German or British counterparts, making it difficult for France to explain its strategic approaches and positions. The strong French presence at the Munich Security Conference this year, as well as increasing visibility on the Indo-Pacific, is promising, but needs to be consolidated. French representatives can do a lot more in Washington as well, where the United Kingdom and Germany have created many more institutional links with the policy community. And Macron, for his part, would do well to realize that if he weren’t trying so hard to be a disruptor, France could be a true leader.
Gesine Weber is a fellow in the Geostrategy Hub of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Ph.D. candidate at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London. Based in Paris, she focuses on European security and defense, the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and the European Union’s role in geopolitics.
Image: The Kremlin