The growth of the foreign policy activity of Emmanuel Macron finds other major EU players in their regrouping stage, write Valdai Club experts Irina Bolgova and Igor Istomin. While London, Berlin, and Brussels are focused on finding answers to domestic challenges, additional space is being freed for Paris to claim leadership. The problem is that French initiatives are poorly designed and poorly prepared diplomatically. Biting statements often take partners by surprise, but this does not increase their chances of implementation.
On November 7, in an interview with The Economist, French leader Emmanuel Macron made a resonant statement about the “brain death” of NATO. Unsurprisingly, his widely-spread words about creating a regular European army to counter the Russian threat appeared precisely a year before. The rebellious spirit of the French President tends to spike around revolutionary dates.
The discussion on this diagnosis revealed the broader context of Macron’s rhetoric, which represents a modern version of France’s Gaullist foreign policy tradition. Having just assumed his post, the French president loudly declared that “France is back!” emphasising his intention to steer the country towards more independent and proactive policymaking. Achieving strategic autonomy for the EU was the primary condition of this “return”. Such autonomy can be interpreted in different ways, but according to Paris, it is associated with a decrease in its long-term military and political dependence on the United States.
After that, in the context of the Yugoslavian conflict in the 1990s, Presidential Adviser Jacques Attali spoke about the confrontation between the “two civilization missions”, and the New York Times described France’s position as “I oppose, therefore I exist.” Then, in 2002, amid debate over expanding the war on terrorism, French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine insisted that the US approach to a common security policy is “overly simplistic”. In response, The Economist noted that for Paris, “making the rooster’s crowing heard is more important than anything.”
Having noted Emmanuel Macron’s take on France’s strategic culture, we have to admit that in comparison to his predecessors, he reaches a qualitatively new level of foreign policy populism. His wish to be heard prompts the French leader to gush with ambiguous statements. Among his most recent achievements is a diplomatic scandal with Sofia and Kiev caused by his words that he prefers the African migrants to the criminal syndicates of Bulgaria and Ukraine; an attack on Bosnia, called by Macron the “jihadist time bomb”; and a decision to block Albanian and North Macedonian negotiations facilitating EU ascension.
The growth of the foreign policy activity of Emmanuel Macron finds other major EU players in their regrouping stage. While London, Berlin, and Brussels are focused on finding answers to domestic challenges, additional space is being freed for Paris to claim leadership. The problem is that French initiatives are poorly designed and poorly prepared diplomatically. Biting statements often take partners by surprise, but this does not increase their chances of implementation.
Nevertheless, for the most part, the partners of Paris have demonstrated indicative patience toward their restless colleague, diligently winding up the most odious aspects of his projects. This is facilitated by the amorphousness of his ambitious concepts, the inconsistency of his statements, his inability to transform them into detailed plans of action that are adequate in scale. In this regard, for example, the Paris idea of European strategic autonomy provides a broad field of interpretation.
It causes the greatest fears among representatives of Central and Eastern Europe, who seek to prevent the US and NATO from distancing themselves from one another at all costs. At the same time, they appeal to the logic of Paris in attempts to weaken the reliance of European energy on Russian supplies. Rising concerns about potential technological dependence on China (primarily regarding the 5G networks) forms an additional dimension of discussions on strategic autonomy.
Such expansion and a shift in substantive focus lead to erosion of the original French initiatives, delaying the transition to their real implementation. The dynamic style of Macron contradicts with the inertia of European politics. As a result, the only significant step towards strategic autonomy today is the integration of military-industrial policy within the EU, which will continue the previously-established trend itself.
The high-profile initiatives of the French president create such great outrage in European politics that they cannot be ignored. At the same time, practical results remain very limited, and most of Macron’s energy causes increased partner fatigue. Accordingly, Moscow should be careful about the escapades of Paris. In particular, one should not be deceived by his statements regarding the weakening of NATO. Historical experience indicates that doubts about transatlantic unity most often give rise to feverish practical activities designed to justify the continued cohesion of the Alliance.