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Emmanuel Macron’s World View – Why the UK should not sign up

Emmanuel Macron’s World View
Why the UK should not sign up to it

The French President wants France to forge a European defence alliance and to pursue its own global role. Yet, says John Keiger, his stance on two major strategic matters, Ukraine and Taiwan, was at odds with a majority of France’s Euro-Atlantic partners. For the future, the UK should steer clear of President Macron’s plans to draw it into ever closer European alliance.

As if to celebrate the country’s national holiday France’s parliament  passed the 2024-2030 Loi de programmation militaire, on 13 July, providing the financial architecture to implement the country’s 2022 National Strategic Review (NSR)[1]. With a 40 percent budget increase over 7 yrs (413.3 billion euros) France continues proudly to proclaim her ‘global’ role.

This is a far cry from the euro-centricity displayed by Britain’s diplomatic establishment and its awkwardness at the mention of ‘global Britain’, despite the two states’ strikingly similar foreign and defence assets. And France’s NSR is unambiguously Emmanuel Macron’s creation, as his preface makes clear. Given Britain’s improved relations with France and the prospect of a Labour government pushing that further as part of an EU rapprochement, it is fair to ask if Emmanuel Macron’s world view is compatible with Britain’s?

France’s brand of globalism is, according to the NSR, that of an international ‘balancing power’, maintaining the stability of the international order, based on respect for international law and multilateralism, while being the ‘motor of European autonomy’. (p.7) Consequently it is a necessary condition that France, according to the NSR, encourages common European defence and its strategic autonomy. This is intended to be complementary to NATO and France’s partnerships, ‘while guarding against the undesirable effects of their changed strategic or geographical priorities’, a veiled reference to the US and possibly the UK averting their gaze from Europe. (p.8) Unsurprisingly, the document does not directly address the concern France’s allies have about her long-term commitment to the Alliance, given that two of France’s largest political groupings, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National and Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Nupes coalition, are highly sceptical about France remaining a NATO member.

Since his election in 2017 President Macron’s stance on numerous international issues has proven controversial. For two highly strategic international crises, Ukraine and Taiwan, his stance has been at odds with a majority of France’s Euro-Atlantic partners. Macron’s initial ambivalence towards Russia following its invasion of Ukraine and his insistence that Moscow not be humiliated, was recently replicated on his return from China with his quip that Europeans should not be mere ‘followers’ of America regarding China and Taiwan.  Giving the impression that Washington was responsible for the escalation of tension over Taiwan, at the very moment in early April when Chinese military forces were encircling the island in a ‘military exercise’, raised concerns in France. Macron doubled down on his comments, but the French foreign ministry was far from happy, faced again with one of the president’s fait accompli. ‘The president does what he sees fit and people are fed up of picking up the pieces’, said one French diplomat.[2]

This stance, which is clearly at odds with that of France’s mainstream allies, surprises all the more for the NSF having as a strategic objective that France be a ‘reliable and credible partner’ in diplomacy and defence. President Macron is renowned for his fence-sitting (en même temps), so it comes as no surprise that the document goes on to insist that France ‘refuses to lock itself into the logic of blocs’, adding that ‘it is important to maintain this old and original positioning in searching for a balanced relationship with our allies.’(p.15) In the 1960s France’s NATO allies reluctantly accommodated that posture. But that was a time when France counted for more in the world and when she was led by someone of the stature of General de Gaulle. Her allies may not be so amenable today, despite the NSR listing as its 5th strategic priority out of ten being that France be ‘an exemplary ally in the Euro-Atlantic area’ (p.27).

President Macron’s unhelpful remark regarding European defence of Taiwan notwithstanding, France does have an Indo-Pacific strategy. It was developed before Britain’s pivot to the region. Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, was the guest of honour at France’s 14th July parade to celebrate their 25 year-old partnership, with India announcing an intent to purchase an additional 25 Rafale combat aircraft and three Scorpène class submarines.  India is seen as key to the strategy. As was Australia. But the French ‘contract of the century’ to supply Australia with diesel-powered submarines was scuppered by Canberra’s switch to UK-US nuclear powered ones. The 2021 Aukus deal was a severe and humiliating blow from which President Macron has personally not recovered. Indeed, in Brussels, whenever the Indo-Pacific is discussed in France’s presence her partners avoid mentioning the Australian-UK-US defence pact ‘out of respect’ for Paris. In discussions of a putative EU strategy in the Indo-Pacific any possible collaboration with Aukus, which makes perfect sense, is blackballed by French officials as an insufficiently multilateralist approach.

Nevertheless, the NSR does proclaim France’s ambition to contribute to the stability of the Indo-Pacific and to defending French interests and international law in the region (p.27). But the NSR is adamant that NATO should not extend its reach to the Indo-Pacific. While alluding to collaboration with France’s EU partners, the NSR studiously avoids specific reference to working with the US or UK in the region.

When defining France’s strategy east of the Persian Gulf the NSR insists that France’s role of ‘balancing power in the Indo-Pacific should be reaffirmed’ (p.44). This is what Macron meant by his unfortunate Taiwan quip. Just as the US and UK are ignored in the region, the NSR sees France working with local partners, such as Indonesia, Japan and Australia, while bolstering the EU’s presence and its partnership with ASEAN. It is clear from the document that President Macron wishes to see France and the EU leading in the region and the Anglo-Americans kept at bay.

The document does however state the need to work ‘quickly’ and much closer with the UK post-Brexit in line with the 2010 Lancaster House treaty. This would mean, for Macron and Europe, harnessing Britain’s defence and security assets in the Euro-Atlantic arena. Macron was pleased to get Prime Minister Liz Truss to move in that direction by signing London up to the European Political Community, thereby keeping Britain in the European tent in preparation for closer relations. Here Britain can expect to feel pressure from France directly, and via the EU, to align with their conception of global politics, most likely with the carrot of post Brexit flexibility on peripheral issues. And a neophyte Labour government would be putty in the hands of a motivated Macron buttressed by the Brussels’ bureaucracy happy to subjugate long term British foreign, defence and military procurement policy to EU norms in exchange for minor post Brexit quick wins for Labour. [3]

One wonders what France’s sleeping partners in the EU and NATO think of this Franco-French world view. Mischievous minds might ask whether Macron’s judgement has been a shining example on the international scene over the last six years, whether it be Lebanon or relations with Italy, not to mention his misjudging a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the value of talking to Putin, the sale of arms to Ukraine or speaking for Europe on Taiwan.

France and the UK have many good reasons to collaborate on specific foreign policy and defence issues, as the Lancaster House agreements allow. But for Britain to tie herself to Emmanuel Macron’s world view, as expressed in the NSR would be foolhardy. Just as he is waiting for the Conservative administration to move over, London should wait until after 2027 when President Macron’s term as French President ends.

Professor John Keiger

John Keiger is a historian of France and former research director of the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. His expertise covers France in the 19th and 20th centuries, with a special interest in foreign policy and international relations. His books include: Raymond Poincaré; France and the World since 1870 and Ils ont fait la paix: le traité de Versailles vu de France et d’ailleurs.

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