Macron's Foreign Policy Ambitions Meet France's Realities

10 MINS READMay 18, 2018 | 09:00 GMT
French soldiers march in a military parade in Dakar, Senegal, in April 2010.
(SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images)

French soldiers march in a 2010 military parade in Dakar, Senegal. As a former colonial empire, France has interests that stretch from sub-Saharan Africa to the Middle East, and to the Indian Ocean.

  • The current global context gives France an opportunity to try to shape the European Union according to its needs, and to elevate its role in global affairs.
  • But France still depends on key allies, such as the United States and Germany, to achieve many of its foreign policy goals.
  • France will push to increase the European Union's military and economic autonomy, but its dependency on allies, and factors beyond its control, will limit its room for action.

Since taking office a year ago, French President Emmanuel Macron has pursued a busy foreign policy agenda, pushing for greater European integration; visiting the United States, China and India, as well as more than two dozen other countries; authorizing airstrikes in Syria; intervening in a political crisis in Lebanon; and trying to preserve France's influence in its former African colonies. Macron's foreign policy goals — to reform the European Union according to France's views, while elevating France's influence on global affairs — follow France's strategic interests, which are simultaneously European and global.

Because of its position at the heart of Europe, France spends significant time managing its relationship with Germany. Since the end of World War II, the main framework for Franco-German dialogue has been the European Union, which explains why France and Germany devote so much energy to discussing the future direction of the bloc. But France is also a Mediterranean power and a former colonial empire, with interests that stretch from sub-Saharan Africa to the Levant, and even to the Indian Ocean. France is also more willing than most other countries in Europe to use military power in addition to diplomacy, trade and investment to attain its goals. Recent developments such as Brexit, the Donald Trump presidency and increasing competition between global powers are opening new foreign policy opportunities for France. But in moving to exploit these opportunities, France is bumping into familiar constraints.

The Big Picture

In Stratfor's 2018 Annual and Second-Quarter Forecasts, we said this would be a year of debate about the future of the European Union, and a year of uncertainty about the future of the global order. The current context creates both opportunities and challenges for France, one of the few EU members with a true global reach. But for all of France's interest in elevating its role in global affairs, significant constraints remain.

France's European Goals

Under Macron, France has two main goals when it comes to Europe. The first is to reform the European Union according to Macron's vision of the continental bloc. He wants to strengthen the eurozone by giving it a finance minister, a budget and a parliament, and he supports plans to introduce a common guarantee for deposits in eurozone banks. He also has proposed greater harmonization of tax policies in the European Union and backs the idea of turning Europe's bailout fund into a European Monetary Fund, which would reduce the bloc's dependency on the International Monetary Fund.

These proposals are part of a French strategy to use the European Union to manage globalization and protect France from its negative side effects. Some proposals, such as harmonizing taxes or cracking down on cheap labor from Eastern Europe, are also meant to protect France from competition from fellow EU member states. But France's strategy also has a German dimension. Macron's proposals reflect France's traditional interest in setting up institutions that give Paris political and economic primacy in Europe (in many cases using German money), while keeping France and Germany so closely interconnected that another war between them is almost impossible.

France's other goal in Europe is to increase the continent's strategic autonomy. French efforts in this direction can be traced to a failed plan in the early 1950s to establish a European Defense Community, but current events have created new opportunities. Britain's departure from the European Union opens the door for deeper military cooperation within the bloc, as London traditionally had opposed measures that would take place in parallel to NATO. In fact, one of the first decisions the European Union took after the British voted to leave the bloc was to move ahead with the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) initiative, which had been dormant for about a decade. PESCO's main goal is to pool resources in areas related to equipment acquisition, research, funding and utilization. So far, 25 of the European Union's 28 members have agreed to participate. In March, the group identified a first list of joint defense projects in areas including maritime surveillance and cybersecurity. In the coming months, PESCO members will select a new list of joint collaborative projects, with the goal of formally adopting them in November.

Under German pressure, however, PESCO focuses primarily on capability projects and not necessarily on force projection. Further, PESCO is an EU program and thus excludes the United Kingdom, which, along with France, is the only European country with a true global military reach. As a result, France has reached out to the United Kingdom to create a European Intervention Initiative, which potentially could give France the operational dimension PESCO lacks. The French goal is to create a deployable European military crisis force outside of the EU framework. France has invited 10 countries to sign a letter of intent on the initiative in Paris in June. The guest list includes two of the other biggest military power in Europe, Spain and Italy. Their presence gives the project a Mediterranean dimension in line with France's traditional interest in the region. Denmark and Estonia were also invited, adding a Baltic dimension to the project. Notably, France also reached out to non-NATO members Finland and Sweden, but they declined to participate.

France's Global Goals

France is interested in having a say on global issues, particularly on matters that concern its traditional spheres of influence in places like the Middle East and Africa. French corporations in such sectors as construction, energy and telecommunications have a significant presence in Africa and the Middle East, and France imports commodities from these regions. France's interest in those regions also has a security component, as Paris fights terrorist organizations that could target French interests at home and abroad. It also wants to prevent instability in the regions from reaching Europe, both in the form of terrorism and immigration.

The French military, for example, has been conducting counterterrorism operations in the Sahel since 2013. But France is also aware of its military limitations, particularly in logistics, and in recent years it has asked its European and U.S. allies to share some of the burden. Under Macron, France is also pushing African countries to participate more actively in promoting stability. France wants its African partners to get the G5 Sahel Force — which was created in 2014 and includes participation from Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Niger and Mauritania — up and running as fast as possible. However, the force still faces operational and funding challenges, and French troops probably will remain engaged in the region for years.

A map showing French military bases around the world

Macron has also been active in the Middle East over the past year. In July, France hosted peace talks between the leaders of Libya's two main factions. Then in November, Macron pressured Emirati and Saudi officials to let Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri return to Beirut after his temporary resignation. And since the start of 2018, Macron has tried to persuade the United States to remain in the Iran nuclear deal.

France also sees an opening in the Indo-Pacific region, where it has had a presence for centuries and still controls the islands of Reunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean and New Caledonia and French Polynesia in the South Pacific. These possessions and other smaller ones have given France the largest exclusive economic zone in the world. France has long been involved in the fight against piracy; terrorism; trafficking in migrants, drugs and arms; and illegal fishing in the region, but the rise of China and India could push France to be even more active there.

Growing tensions in the region worry France: In its 2015 National Strategy for the Security of Maritime Areas, the French government warned that the growing presence of naval forces in the Indian Ocean, and the increasing rivalry among states in the region, could threaten the freedom of navigation in international waters and disrupt commercial maritime routes linking Europe to Asia. But France also sees frictions in the Indo-Pacific as an opportunity to increase arms sales to China's increasingly worried neighbors. In 2016, for example, France won a contract to build submarines for Australia. And in April, France and India signed an agreement to increase cooperation in areas including defense, space technology, climate change and nuclear energy. The agreement includes the sale of French submarines and fighter jets to India.

France's Limitations

The current global environment offers many opportunities for France, but Paris also faces significant constraints. For all its ambitions, France is still a middle power that for the most part depends on its partners, particularly Germany and the United States, to achieve its goals. There is little Paris can do in Europe without Berlin's acquiescence, and Macron is already dealing with German resistance to several French proposals to reform the European Union. Ideas such as the creation of a finance minister and a separate budget for the eurozone have been shelved, while plans to harmonize corporate taxes or increase financial risk-sharing have been significantly watered down.

For all its ambitions, France is still a middle power that for the most part depends on its partners, particularly Germany and the United States, to achieve its goals.

France can always rely on its Mediterranean partners, which include Italy, Spain and Greece, to push for EU reform. But they are economically and politically weak, which reduces their influence on European affairs. On the military front, PESCO is a much more modest version of what Paris originally wanted, and the European Intervention Initiative is in its infancy. With a growing economy and a government appointed with the promise of reforming the European Union, France feels more confident than at any point in the past decade to push for change in the bloc. However, the ongoing process of EU fragmentation and Germany's domestic constraints mean that Paris probably will have to accept much more modest reforms. And while the United Kingdom shares many of France's interests, the Brexit process probably will linger for a few more years, consuming significant resources in the United Kingdom and limiting the room for Anglo-French cooperation.

When it comes to the United States, France sees both opportunities and challenges. Brexit creates an opportunity, because the United States will need a new interlocutor with the European Union, a role that France wants to take. While this position would enhance France's diplomatic influence both in Europe and abroad, there are also constraints. For all the good rapport between the Macron and Trump administrations, France failed to prevent the United States from withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, or managed to obtain permanent exemptions from U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum. These are domestic decisions by the U.S. government over which France has limited to no influence. Moreover, France is skeptical of negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States as a way to end the trade disputes with it. And when it comes to France's military aspirations abroad, U.S. logistical, intelligence and financial support remain crucial for French operations in places like the Sahel. Finally, France's influence is also limited in other regions, such as the Middle East, where frictions among regional powers, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, and the proxy conflicts that take place because of them, are likely to go on regardless of France's involvement.

France's foreign policy under Macron has combined the country's traditional interests with the new opportunities and challenges created by current events. Paris will try to shape Europe according to its needs, and to take advantage of every possibility to elevate its presence and influence on global affairs. But France's position as a middle power means Paris will face concrete constraints. Political frictions within Europe will make it hard for France to impose its view on its partners, and events and forces beyond its control will limit its global influence.

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