The French president, Emmanuel Macron, has taken a big gamble in putting himself forward as Europe’s man in Moscow (at least virtually) during the crisis in Ukraine. He has kept an open dialogue with Vladimir Putin even as the Russian leader invaded and insists that he continues to press for a solution. But while his re-election campaign appears to be benefiting, his actions are sending mixed messages abroad – and not for the first time.
It is important to understand the pressure French presidents feel to reassert France on the global stage. In 2011 a poll found 81% of French voters were concerned about declining French influence globally. Macron’s international persona has been very different to his two predecessors as president. Nicolas Sarkozy was hawkish on the international stage, and somewhat reckless with spearheading the 2011 intervention in Libya. At the other end of the spectrum, Socialist Party president François Hollande was almost completely absent.
Macron has sought to style his presidency as one that reasserts France’s position on the global stage without the excesses of Sarkozy, in a muted yet assertive style. This has not, however, gone smoothly.
On a mission to revive a durable and long-term French influence in the world, Macron has sought to promote France as an important and influential international security actor but has hit multiple roadblocks along the way. He has pushed hard on anti-jihadist operation Barkhane in the Sahel, which now involves 5,000 troops. But this endeavour has had mixed results and France was recently been asked to leave by the Malian government.
Macron’s position was also undercut significantly by the sudden and unexpected signing of the AUKUS defence alliance between Australia, the UK and the US, which left France out in the cold. This was seen globally as a vote of no confidence in the French military-industrial complex.
A new opportunity
Now Macron is seeking to be highly assertive on Ukraine. He is one of multiple world leaders, including from Turkey, Israel and India, who have attempted to situate themselves as mediators in the crisis that has followed Russia’s invasion. Macron has repeatedly spoken to Putin, even attempting to showcase his importance as a world leader by going to Moscow to meet Putin directly.
This was, however a PR disaster. The sight of Macron seated, diminished at the far end of Putin’s comically long table provoked mockery. More substantively, despite repeating and potentially lending legitimacy to Putin’s demands, the French president has not made any progress in averting the conflict.
This is Macron’s version of a longstanding approach to foreign policy that stems from post-colonial France’s reality in the years after the second world war. Relegated to the status of a second-rate global power and suspicious of US strength, president Charles de Gaulle took French forces out of Nato in 1966 and told all US forces to leave France.. De Gaulle’s position, casting France as a sceptical, yet powerful, member of the western alliance, remains popular in France. But it doesn’t always translate into increased sway globally because it has led to France being seen as potentially unreliable in times of crisis.
Macron’s attempt to place France as part of the western alliance but as a potential alternative to the anglophone hegemony of the US and UK appears to have played well at home, where his election campaign goes from strength to strength. But while Macron may play the global power broker, an early misstep in apparently speaking in favour of pushing for a neutral Ukraine to secure peace has left him out of step with the western leaders he purports to represent in Moscow.
Macron remains in contact with Putin, insisting that keeping lines of dialogue open is vitally important. However, it has also been argued that this could be seen as privileging the relationship between Paris and Moscow at the expense of European partners – particularly the Nordic and Baltic states. A move to remain relevant and to possibly respond to domestic concerns about France’s diminished global position has increased tensions for France globally.
Nor have international allies forgotten Macron’s startling comments from 2019, when he declared Nato is becoming “brain dead”. Rebuking the transatlantic security pact that has ensured that peace in Europe for more than half a century was part of a broader endeavour to establish an “EU army”. Internationally, this has been seen as foolish, given the enduring dominance of the US militarily and, until very recently, the unwillingness of European states to meet even their Nato guideline of spending 2% of GDP on defence. Without security guarantees from the world’s most powerful military, the US, and without even Europe’s biggest spender, Brexit Britian, an EU army is unlikely to be a credible military deterrence.
Even with the recent vogue for massively ramping up defence spending (see Germany’s €100 billion (£84 billion) boost), the military balance of the western alliance cannot be upended in the short to medium term – if ever. Add into the mix reports that Macron has experienced significant friction with his own military and it becomes even harder to see how he could forge a European defence policy.
Macron is likely to win in April, at least in part due to a “war bounce” for his campaign. But he faces a much tougher struggle to reassert either his personal popularity, or indeed French prestige, on the global stage. As laudable as his original intentions may have been, his chats with Putin are rapidly becoming a hindrance in this respect too.