Give France Credit for Its Strategic Change


After openly discussing the potential of sending NATO troops to Ukraine recently, French President Emmanuel Macron is now being described as “the hawk” in some European capitals. His statements, however, offer just a glimpse into the underlying, and significant, changes in French strategic thinking over the last two years.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, France should, theoretically, have been in a good position to lead the European response. As the E.U. member state with the most significant military capabilities and a historic driver of European security and defense integration, France also had a president who, since taking office, had preached the importance of European strategic autonomy to other Europeans. However, because Paris had misread the threat that Russia represented, and Macron still argued in favor of building a European security order “with Russia” in early 2022, France could not credibly take the lead. Instead, the United Kingdom was left to play a vanguard role in the European response.

More than two years into the war, the rhetoric from Paris has significantly changed — and there are good reasons to believe that this change is permanent. In contrast to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, in France it is hard to single out a watershed moment when this strategic transformation occurred. Yet many foreign policy paradigms have so fundamentally changed in Paris that, whatever happens on the battlefield, it is hard to believe that a return to 2020 thinking is possible. Macron’s second Sorbonne speech in mid-April further confirmed this, as did his recent interview with The Economist. In this conversation, Macron clearly emphasized his perception of Russia as an existential threat and the need for Europeans — beyond the EU —  to step up deterrence.

This change in French strategic thinking creates a window of opportunity to redesign the European security order. Leaders in Paris and European capitals should capitalize on it. For France, this means continuing to craft policies that build on this new rhetoric. For those working with or on France in other European states, this means giving Paris credit where it is due and constructively engaging, for example, with concrete proposals in response to Macron’s Sorbonne speech. If France’s European partners cling to old assumptions about the cynical nature of French foreign policy, they will miss a much-needed opportunity to strengthen the continent’s security.



Catching Up After Strategic Failure

France’s initial response to the war was guided by a blatant misjudgment of Russia and a corresponding unwillingness to adjust French foreign policy. Eastern European states had long warned about the Russian threat. They sharply criticized Macron’s new engagement strategy with Russia in 2019 and his bilateral dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Macron had overestimated France’s leverage as a “balancing power” (puissance d’équilibre) that could influence Russia, just as he had falsely seen Putin as a rational and predictable interlocutor. After the war began, Macron’s warning “not to humiliate Russia” further undermined France’s remaining credibility.

Today, the words coming out of the Elysée sound very different. Macron describes Russia as a threat to the European security order, including to the European project tout court. France set up a 200-million-euro special fund through which Ukraine could directly obtain weapons from the French defense industry, then renewed it with another 200 million last year. In February, Paris and Kyiv signed a bilateral security agreement, including military support of up to three billion euros. Furthermore, France’s defense economy will be able to supply more critical weapons in the coming months. French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu recently announced that the production of Caesar cannons will have increased from two per month before the start of the invasion to twelve per month and from 10 MILAN missiles a month to almost 40. Finally, France’s military investment on NATO’s eastern flank demonstrates that Macron’s 2023 Bratislava speech, in which he acknowledged that France had not sufficiently listened to Eastern Europe, was more than rhetoric. As the most visible signal of France’s commitment to the alliance, the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle deployed in the Mediterranean under the operational command of NATO for the first time on April 22.

Some criticism, however, remains. The French Ministry of Defense has now published the details of French military support, which show that Paris has delivered sophisticated systems and heavy weapons to Ukraine. But France’s contribution remains relatively small compared to the size of the French economy and to other European states. To counter this criticism, Paris will have to deliver — literally.

From Opportunism to Conviction

More broadly, critics have debated whether France’s new policy is simply driven by political opportunism. France has often been accused of advancing its own interests through the E.U., presenting them as shared interests even where they come at the expense of European ones. This strategy is not unique among European governments — states often join international organizations to maximize their benefits. But France has been particularly successful in employing it and as a result tends to face more criticism. Indeed, when France first pivoted to support Ukraine’s accession into NATO and the E.U., some suggested it simply sought to reap credit for “getting ahead of the curve.” 

However, there are good reasons to believe that what might have started as opportunism has morphed into political conviction. A central part of Macron’s agenda since taking office has been the quest for “European strategic autonomy.” This means defining European strategy based on European interests, and equipping Europe with the tools to act independently in defense of its security and sovereignty. Paris now believes this goal requires constructing a European security order without, and more precisely against, Russia. As a result, France launched the European Political Community in autumn 2022 and has thrown its support behind NATO and E.U. enlargement. These adjustments reflect a new assessment of the threat posed by and the nature of the regime in Russia and policy proposals that reflect the concerns of eastern flank countries. Furthermore, Macron has developed good relationships with Poland’s new Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Czech President Petr Pavel to facilitate cooperation with Eastern and Central European countries.

Most importantly, these strategic shifts also influence French foreign policy in other parts of the world. Increasing concern over the emergence of blocs and strategic competition has been reflected in French strategies since the mid-2010s. But this prism has become even more important since the start of the war in Ukraine.

One example of this is France’s increasingly realistic assessment of the role it can play in the Indo-Pacific. France stands out among European states because more than 90 percent of its exclusive economic zones are located in the region, and more than 1.6 million French citizens live in the French overseas territories. France also has several permanent military deployments in the region. However, France’s forward Indo-Pacific strategy, coupled with high-profile naval deployments and Macron’s ambivalent rhetoric of France as a “balancing power” in the region, led to charges that Paris was being unrealistically ambitious. Some saw France as seeking for itself or the E.U. to be a “third pole” next to China and the United States in the region.

Yet France has recently toned down its rhetoric, reflecting an awareness that only by cooperating on regional challenges will it be able to build meaningful partnerships in the region. This new approach mirrors a statement made by Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, reminding Europeans that “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems.”

Furthermore, Paris learned the hard way that Russia’s war in Ukraine is just the tip of Russia’s influence iceberg, particularly when the increasing presence of the Wagner Group pushed France to withdraw its forces from Mali. Despite the cliché of a France constantly on the lookout for neo-imperial interventions in Africa, in reality Paris has little desire to replicate an intervention like the one in Mali, which brought high political, financial, and human costs. French policymakers have come to see the “hyper-securitization” of their Africa policy as counterproductive. As a result, France’s thinking on crisis management increasingly involves new multilateral tools like the Rapid Deployment Capacity or the activation of Article 44 of the Treaty of the European Union. It has also begun to adjust its Africa strategy to focus more on global governance, as reflected in the One Forest Summit, and on hybrid threats like disinformation. The withdrawal from the Sahel has now freed up troops and resources to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. It has also created more strategic bandwidth for France to direct toward Europe.

Fit to Lead, Yet Unfit to Lead Alone

Does this change in its grand strategy make France the natural leader among E.U. member states in security and defense? Yes and no. Given France’s prominence and Macron’s commitment to European autonomy, it is almost impossible to imagine a future European security order without Paris playing a central role. However, domestic challenges and changing dynamics among European states make it equally unrealistic to think France can lead alone.

Institutionally, the French president enjoys a high level of autonomy and decision-making power, which allows France to adapt its foreign policy quickly. France’s strong diplomatic service leaves it well positioned to act as a convening power, hosting meetings in Europe and conferences in other parts of the world. Because of its military capabilities, its role as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, and its status as the E.U.’s only nuclear power, France remains central to the future of E.U. defense. Particularly when a second Donald Trump presidential term remains a genuine possibility, even the most skeptical European policymakers realize that European strategic autonomy is not an end in itself or a means to impose French priorities, but a necessary step to allow Europe to defend itself in a worst case scenario where it was abandoned by the United States.

However, taking a leading role does not mean leading alone. The last few years have shown that European defense can also be designed in Tallin and that the European Commission itself plays a critical role in deploying existing tools like the European Peace Facility. Furthermore, Poland’s new pro-European government has opened a window of opportunity for geographically rebalancing policy-making in Europe. Especially when it comes to European support for Ukraine, Paris will not have trouble finding partners willing to co-lead. As France’s thinking about European strategic autonomy extends beyond the E.U., it will find a natural partner in the United Kingdom, its fellow Security Council member and nuclear power. Seeking synergies and co-leading initiatives, particularly on managing the risk of U.S. disengagement, would add greater legitimacy to French efforts and ultimately generate better results.

Furthermore, France’s capacity to lead hinges on the discourse coming out of the Elysée — in other words, on Macron’s on-the-record statements. His remarks on European troops in Ukraine show again that the president needs to consider his words more carefully. While strategic ambiguity can be valuable for Ukraine, making such statements in public tends to create more buzz and confusion than a fruitful debate. The “Macron method” might succeed in forcing other European leaders to engage in constructive rethinking. But more often it leads to confusion about France’s motives and intentions. Some conversations are better held behind closed doors.

Finally, domestic politics weigh heavily on Macron and will determine whether France is able to live up to its ambitions. Less than two months before the E.U. elections, where polls currently show the far-right Rassemblement National 16points ahead of Macron’s party, making foreign policy while containing the far right at home is a delicate balancing act. France expects a budget deficit of 5 percent for the coming year and still needs to find budget cuts totaling up to ten billion euros. French support for Ukraine remains high. However, this doesn’t mean they would be happy with the cuts in public spending that such support might entail.

A strong, proactive, and engaged France will be critical for designing the future of the European security order. But Macron will need partners for co-leadership in Europe just as much as Europeans need France. Consequently, Europeans would be well advised to give France credit for its strategic change, and to start reflections for concrete steps based on this instead of a cliché-based view of a foreign policy that no longer exists.



Gesine Weber is currently a visiting scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University and a PhD candidate at King’s College London. Normally based in Paris as a research fellow in the geostrategy hub of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, she focuses on European security and defense, the E3 (France, Germany, and the United Kingdom), and the European Union’s geopolitical role.

Image: Wikimedia

Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Macron’s “Bucharest speech.” It has been corrected to reflect the fact that the location of the speech was Bratislava.