Since taking office in 2017, Macron has gone all in for European sovereignty and his project of strengthening the EU and Europe in a broader sense. In this speech to the conference of ambassadors in the summer of 2019, described France’s role as a ‘puissance d’équilibre’ — an ‘equilibrium power’ or ‘balance power’, meaning that ‘France has allies (…), but we are not a power considering that our friends’ enemies are our enemies, and that we are forbidden to talk to them’.
Accordingly, he underlined France’s vocation as being to deescalate crises and diplomatic conflict, citing Iran, relations with Russia, and the role of the Europeans in the Indo-Pacific. Macron has, indeed, taken many security and foreign policy initiatives during his five-year term, which has sometimes brought him the criticism of ‘hyperactive, disruptive foreign policy’. While he has undoubtedly transformed the EU and the way Europeans cooperate, key foreign challenges remain for the next five years.
Indo-Pacific: from European leadership to the sidelines
France is the European country with the most at stake in the Indo-Pacific region: 93% of France’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are located in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, 1.5 million people live in French overseas territories, and around 8,000 soldiers are deployed to the region. Within the EU, France has actively lobbied for more interest in the region, leading to the adoption of the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy in September 2021.
However, France relies mostly on cooperation with India and Australia to achieve its strategic priorities, and has deployed a strike carrier group, cooperating with the UK. It seemed that Macron had successfully wrapped the region up through this comprehensive approach — and then along came AUKUS, a trilateral deal between the UK, the US, and Australia, which not only ended a multi-billion euro submarine contract between France and Australia, but also excluded France from further cooperation with major players in the region. The previous approach, promising as it was, now requires strategic adjustment.
US: France’s Biden moments were anything but rosy
While Biden’s election in 2020 sparked ‘cautious optimism’ in France, the latter has quickly turned into sober realism. The new administration’s desire to manage transatlantic relations through Berlin – even though Paris had stepped up its efforts in the Indo-Pacific, a region of crucial relevance for the US – was perceived with irritation in Paris.
Summer 2021 brought relations to a new low: after the chaotic US retreat from Afghanistan, Paris perceived the AUKUS deal as a ‘stab in the back’ from the US, leading France to recall the French ambassador for consultations, and more broadly sparking questions of US reliability.
The joint communiqué by Biden and Macron after a meeting in Rome in the autumn of 2021 showed that France managed to obtain important concessions from the US when it comes to security, mostly that the it recognises ‘the importance of a stronger and more capable European defence, and of engagement in the Sahel.
The war in Ukraine has forced the US and France to work closer together —through the so-called Euro-Quad, the G7, or the participation of Biden in the EU summit. Although when it comes to security, Macron is as transatlantic as a President might get in France – emphasising the role of NATO and security cooperation with the US – mutual misunderstandings (particularly on the European sovereignty debate) and the need to rebuild trust after the AUKUS issue mean that Macron has a mixed transatlantic track record that varies across issues.
Sahel: better an end with worries than endless worry?
The French intervention in the Mali, which began in 2013 at the request of the Malian government, has caused many headaches in Paris. War fatigue in France and anti-French sentiments in Mali have increased, the results of the fight against terrorism are mixed, and the overall security situation has deteriorated with the Malian Armed Forces barely able to deal with the terrorist threat without international support.
Over recent years, France has increasingly europeanised its engagement in the Sahel: this ranges from the launch of Sahel Alliance in 2017, alongside Germany, to the recent deployment of the Takuba task force in 2020, a unit composed of European special forces and integrated in the French mission Barkhane.
Yet, two coups d’Etat within a year, complicated relations with the junta in power, and the engagement of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner group have changed the equation, rendering the achievement of French objectives de facto impossible — so that France has decided to withdraw from Mali.
Over the last five years, Macron has demonstrated French leadership (and co-leadership with Germany) among Europeans in the Sahel, and the decision to withdraw the French troops allows him to avoid a scenario of a forever war, or ‘France’s Afghanistan’. Yet, the high level of violence, the increasing Russian influence, and unresolved root causes of migration, with the risk of spillover to the wider region, all constitute major challenges for France and Europe over the next years, and it remains to be seen if France will find partners for a cross-regional Europe-Sahel approach, particularly potential military cooperation.
Many remaining foreign policy challenges for the next president
France’s next president will undoubtedly face a multitude of foreign policy challenges. Aware of the need for an EU instead of a national strategy on China, the French senate has formulated recommendations for an update on EU China policy — which has not yet been translated into policy. Furthermore, an enduring challenge of French foreign policy remains the country’s approach to Africa, and particularly its former colonies; while a reconciliation process with Algeria has just started, it is often criticised for falling too short.
Furthermore, Macron’s ambition to rebuild the Lebanese political system after the explosion in Beirut was described as a ‘fundamental calculation error’; and relations with Turkey, a crucial partner for France, have deteriorated over recent years, reflected in the strikingly low level of mutual trust (only 15% of the French see Turkey as a reliable partner, and 26% vice-versa).
On the short and medium-term, the biggest security and foreign policy challenge for France will undoubtedly remain dealing with Russia. While Macron had established a ‘demanding’ bilateral dialogue with Russia in 2018, sparking harsh criticism in eastern Europe, he remained Europe’s last channel of communication with Russia (at least until mid-March). Dealing with the war in Ukraine will thus most likely consume France’s foreign policy resources for months at least, and hence create a challenge not to lose sight of other important strategic choices.
By Gesine Weber, PhD candidate at the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.