What France’s Surprise Elections Could Mean for Its Relations with the World


France’s presidents famously have a lot of power — arguably more than any of their counterparts in other democratic presidential systems. This power, however, gets weakened in the — rare — situation known as “cohabitation,” where the president’s party does not have a majority in parliament, and the prime minister and president are thus from different parties. So far, the practice in these moments of cohabitation (there have been three since the beginning of the fifth republic in 1958) has been that the government takes care of domestic matters while the president gets the say over foreign and defense policy. These areas are known as the domaine reservé, the reserved domain for the president.

But ever since French President Emmanuel Macron called for parliamentary elections, experts are debating how “reserved” for the president this domain will really be. Cohabitation seems like a likely outcome of the elections in July, given the disastrous results for Macron’s “Renaissance” party in the European elections. The right-wing Rassemblement National is best placed to get into government. The new electoral grouping Nouveau Front Populaire on the left also has a chance. What unites the two contenders is their explicit opposition to almost everything Macron stands for — including on foreign policy. What might the success of either mean for France’s foreign and defense policy, and for France’s role in the European Union and NATO?

Domaine Reservé: Custom versus Constitution

Although the common understanding is that, in a case of cohabitation, the president keeps the power over France’s foreign and defense policy, this is in fact more the result of past practice and tradition than a clear constitutional prescription. The French constitution makes the president the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and has them preside over the higher national defense councils and committees. The president is also the guarantor of national independence, territorial integrity, and due respect for treaties. But, at the same time, it is the government that has at its disposal the armed forces. The prime minister is responsible for national defense. And the parliament has the power over the budget, so anything that costs money needs a majority in the Assemblé Nationale. And while Macron would still go to European Council meetings, meeting his foreign counterparts and setting the overall direction of the European Union, it’s the foreign and defense ministers who go to meet their international colleagues in Brussels. This could lead to some contradictory messaging out of Paris.

European Defense: What to Expect

The Rassemblement National’s defense program calls European Strategic Autonomy — a project many in Europe consider a decidedly French idea — an “illusion” and advocates to “radically reconfigure [France’s] alliances.” It states that, other than on missiles, no joint European defense program “satisfies any elementary and rational rules for cooperation.” The right-wing party, which is led by Marine Le Pen but is planning to make 28-year-old Jordan Bardella prime minister, notes three times that it will abandon large defense programs with Germany.

The Nouveau Front Populaire says very little in its recently published program on common European defense, as it generally focuses primarily on social and economic issues — it aims to end all E.U. free trade agreements and also “rejects the [E.U.] budgetary pact for the application of [this] legislator contract.” On European foreign and defense policy, Nouveau Front Populaire states that it wants to suspend the E.U.-Israeli association agreement.

France in NATO

Rassemblement National has a history of criticizing NATO, which the party sees as an American outfit, undermining French sovereignty. According to its 2022 program, Rassemblement National wants France to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command, as France’s participation in it is “incompatible with its status as a sovereign power, its diplomatic and military independence and the free definition of the use of its nuclear strike force.” President Charles de Gaulle had taken the same step in 1966, but President Nicolas Sarkozy reversed it in 2009. In recent days, however, Bardella has hinted at this idea being tabled “while we are at war.” Whether this suggests a more fundamental change in position is unclear.

The grouping of left to extreme left parties, Nouveau Front Populaire, does not mention NATO at all in its program, most likely because of the massive differences on this issue between the parties making up the electoral group. The group brings together a long list of left-wing French parties. Its four largest members are La France Insoumise, the Socialist Party , the Greens, and the Communists. La France Insoumise, under leadership of Jean-Luc Melenchon (a presidential candidate in 2022), wants France to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command — and eventually from NATO altogether. The Communists even want to dissolve NATO completely. On the other hand, the Socialist Party wants France to stay in NATO, while increasing military cooperation on the E.U. level. Socialist President Francois Hollande (2012–2017) argued for more European cooperation on defense during his time in office.

It is therefore difficult to predict what positions the Nouveau Front Populaire might take when in government — its positioning might depend on the repartition of seats between the different parties. For the election, La France Insoumise is sending the highest number of candidates into the competition, though that does not necessarily translate into more seats in parliament.

On the Subject of Allies

Rassemblement National’s defense program has one primary goal: do more at the national level, and less with others. All relationships with allies are to be revisited: “Paris will take the initiative in renegotiating with Washington the full scope of its partnership in all areas.” Rassemblement National considers dependence on the United States to be too high. The harshest words, however, are reserved for France’s closest partner in Europe, Germany. Rassemblement National notes a “deep and irremediable divergence of doctrinal, operational and industrial views with Berlin.” It will put an end to the structuring cooperations initiated since 2017 that do not correspond to its vision of sovereign defense and will withdraw its support for Germany’s demand for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. The “structuring cooperations” refer to the mega defense projects of the joint sixth-generation aircraft and combat tank that Paris and Berlin are doing together. The reference to Germany’s seat on the U.N. Security Council, however, seems almost petty as this is a theoretical debate and guaranteed not to succeed. Rassemblement National also considers neither the British-French Combined Joint Expeditionary Force nor the multinational military Eurocorps (made up of 11 European nations and founded by France and Germany) as having any practical use and notes that their suppression would probably be required.

The left-wing Nouveau Front Populaire keeps its cards closer to its chest on international cooperation. Once again, the positions of La France Insoumise and Melenchon are among the most extreme. Melenchon has criticized Germany many times in the past, insulting Angela Merkel in 2014 with a tweet in German in which he told her to shut up. In a 2018 article in Le Monde he warned against German hegemony, arguing that Germany was taking all European jobs and might secretly be trying to get its hands on France’s nuclear weapons. In 2015 he wrote a whole book on “the German poison” which “condemns” France’s neigbors “to poverty and social and political chaos.” Melenchon is not the electoral group’s candidate to the premiership: They cannot agree on who it would be but can agree that it won’t be Melenchon. But one has to wonder how influential this deep-seated hatred of Germany is in his party and its impact on the wider coalition.

Support for Ukraine

Rassemblement National is a traditionally Russian-friendly party. It portrays Russia as a kind of conservatory of traditional European values and has had financial ties to Russian banks in the past. Rassemblement National has consistently criticized E.U. sanctions on Russia. In its defense program — published just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 — Rassemblement National proposed to build “an alliance with Russia on European security.” In recent months, however, Bardella has showed support for arms deliveries to Ukraine (the right-wing parliamentarians abstained from a vote on the bilateral agreement between France and Ukraine in March 2024). The close relationship between Rassemblement National and Russia has raised concerns over allied intelligence-sharing.

Nouveau Front Populaire in its joint program criticizes Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression and commits to “unwaveringly defend the sovereignty and freedom of the Ukrainian people, as well as the integrity of its borders, by delivering the necessary weapons, cancelling its foreign debt, seizing the assets of the oligarchs who contribute to the Russian war effort within the framework permitted by international law.” La France Insoumise, however, voted against Macron’s Ukraine policy and the bilateral French-Ukrainian security agreement, which they consider a “blank check” to Ukraine. They opposed Ukraine joining NATO or the European Union. Once again, Melenchon displays the most extreme views, arguing — before the 2022 invasion, but after the 2014 annexation of Crimea — that “fear of Russia is absurd. They are natural partners. If democracy is under threat, it’s rather by the tyrannies of finance […].” He has also revisited some of his views on Russia in the following years, but significant questions remain as to his positioning on Russia and Ukraine.

Uncertainty Reigns

A cohabitation government could have significant impacts on France’s foreign and defense policy and change France’s position on European and NATO cooperation. Given the ambiguous constitution, the president’s capacity to act on foreign policy is dependent on his relationship with the government and its respect for institutions — both of which can be expected to be not great. The three French cohabitations of the past weren’t easy political moments, but divergences between the ruling parties materialized less on foreign policy than on domestic issues. This is what allowed Presidents Francois Mitterand (cohabitation 1986–1988 and 1993–1995) and Jacques Chirac (1997–2002) to withdraw to the domaine reservé of foreign policy. But today’s political contenders fundamentally oppose many of Macron’s pro-European Union, pro-NATO foreign policy ideas, putting forward instead anti-American and anti-German viewpoints. And in the current political climate, neither side seems likely to care much about historical precedents.

There are many elements of uncertainty that make predictions difficult. On the right side, even if Rassemblement National gets an absolute majority (which, Bardella has suggested, would be the only situation in which they were willing to lead the government), their positions have been watered down rhetorically over the last few weeks. Whether this indicates a change, or is an electoral ploy, is impossible to know. Also, Rassemblement National has never been in government before, increasing uncertainty over their actual behavior once in power.

For the Nouveau Front Populaire, the biggest uncertainty comes from the fact that this grouping brings together parties with such different views on foreign and defense policy. Much will depend on which candidates get into parliament and who is able to politically dominate. It might be unfair to Nouveau Front Populaire to focus primarily on the positions taken by La France Insoumise, arguably one of the more extreme members of the coalition. On the other hand, they are the strongest and often most vocal on foreign and defense questions.

What appears certain is that with a new French government, whether it is right-wing, left-wing, or from a centrist minority, France will lose any ability to take on leadership roles in foreign and defense policy. This, incidentally, might even happen if Macron magically wins a majority or if, in a case of no majority for any side, a technocratic government is put in place: France is facing budgetary trouble as it has been running budget deficits in excess of E.U. limits, for which the European Union might impose financial penalties. The increasingly polarized French political landscape could also lead to further unrest — Macron has warned of the risk of a “civil war” following a right-wing or left-wing victory at the election. While these statements seem unhelpful in the currently heated climate, one cannot exclude the possibility of protests, including violent ones, following the election. Any future government might thus struggle to lead initiatives on foreign policy, given the challenges on the domestic front.

It is possible that even cohabitation governments would choose not to rock the boat immediately on foreign policy issues like Ukraine policy or NATO cooperation, and focus more on domestic matters. But any European and trans-Atlantic cooperation will become more difficult if cohabitation is France’s future. Eurobonds for defense, a Macron proposal, are likely popular neither with the right nor the left. Any discussions about an enlarged European nuclear defense structure based on French nuclear weapons are over. And the Franco-German relationship is almost certain to take a hit.


Ulrike Franke is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, based in Paris. She works on European defense questions, in particular Franco-German cooperation, and researches the use of new technologies in warfare.

Image: Rassemblement National