French President Macron’s recent visit to Beijing caused Western commentators to fume. Macron trumpeted France’s “strategic autonomy,” rejecting U.S. policies meant to deter China’s military from invading Taiwan, a possibility he described as “not our problem.” As he signed new business deals with Beijing, Macron didn’t bother giving lip service to human rights or democracy, contrary to U.S. President Joe Biden’s initiative to create a club of democratic countries.
However, Macron’s rhetoric should be understood within a long history of French self-image as an independent global power that marches to its own drummer. This is not some important break with France’s past.
That past contrasts not only with other former imperial powers like Spain or the Netherlands, but even the United Kingdom, which has oriented its foreign policy around its Transatlantic alliance with the United States — a relationship viewed with distrust from Paris.
The refusal to be seen as a junior partner in international alliances was famously manifested in De Gaulle’s withdrawal of all forces from NATO command in 1967 — a policy that wasn’t fully reversed until 2009 — and France’s development and deployment of strategic nuclear weapons independent, at first, of the U.S.
Despite frequent spats, Paris has supported recent U.S. military campaigns more often than not, including in Lebanon, the 1991 Persian Gulf war, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Libya — where arguably France coaxed the U.S. into conflict — the anti-ISIS war in Iraq, and Syria. Now it’s providing arms to Ukraine. Of course, France famously refused to support George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq — a good call, as it turned out.
Despite that substantive history of cooperation with the U.S., French leaders still strive to remain relevant in global affairs, and not to look like a loyal vassal of Team America. This is particularly true of Macron, who has espoused restoring grandeur to France, Europe, and perhaps most of all the office of the presidency. Toward that end his rhetorical instinct is to provoke — recall in 2019 his description of NATO as “brain dead” — rather than reiterate consensus.
Macron cast his opposition to U.S. diplomacy’s aim at China as part of a quest for a strategically autonomous Europe that isn’t dependent on Washington’s machinations and military power. In practice, though, he hasn’t established any sort of unified stance with fellow Europeans. Eastern European states arguably see Washington as a more reliable partner than France and Germany.
It’s also notable that while French thinkers have played an important role in advancing democracy and human rights, French diplomacy has long been characterized by realpolitik when dealing with authoritarian governments, particularly in arms sales — one matter in which Paris resembles Washington more than Berlin.
France’s Foreign Policy Woes
Macron inherited multiple foreign policy projects intended to further France’s goals of remaining a relevant, independent power. Many of these initiatives have stumbled in recent years.
One was de facto co-leadership of the European Union alongside Germany, which was most manifest in their policy coordination negotiating the early post-Brexit years. More recently, the Paris-Berlin partnership has been conspicuously ailing, with neither side ready to coordinate messaging above their domestic political concerns. That combined with strategic myopia left the United States as the key interlocutor in the Ukraine crisis.
In 2012, Macron’s predecessor, Francois Hollande, began an initially successful military intervention in Mali to halt the alarming advance of militant groups there. This expanded into a long-term counter-insurgency campaign known as Operation Barkhane, sprawling across multiple countries in the Sahel region.
Like the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, French military power in that region could prevent militant groups from seizing capitals, but it didn’t enable those states to stabilize their economic, security and democratic institutions. What we saw instead was persistent insurgency and multiple military coups. Macron announced an end to Barkhane in 2021. After withdrawing from Mali, French troops in neighboring Burkina Faso were disinvited by the post-coup military government, which sought Russia’s Wagner Group to take their place.
Another ill-fated project was France’s engagement in the Indo-Pacific region, which was to be crowned by a deal to build conventionally powered submarines for Australia. France has island territories in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, meaning there’s a potential security synergy with allies in the region.
But as delays and cost overruns mounted, Canberra lost interest in the French deal, and instead sought a counteroffer for nuclear-powered submarines from the U.S. and UK, much to the fury of Paris.
One can speculate whether Macron’s visit to Beijing would have proceeded the same were France still building submarines for Australia that were intended to contest Chinese naval power. France does retain warm relations with India, a rival of China and purchaser of Rafale fighters.
The France-Russia Connection
Despite being targeted by Russian election-manipulation campaigns in 2017, Macron has also touted his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the idea being that Macron would maintain open communication lines and thus reason with Putin more effectively than Washington.
But Macron playing the good cop during daily chats with Putin didn’t prevent the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, despite Putin’s assurances. French military intelligence also wrongly concluded Russia wouldn’t invade Ukraine, despite a mountain of publicly available evidence that most of Russia’s ground forces had moved into position.
Though France has provided Ukraine with capable systems — particularly CAESAR artillery, tank-like AMX-10RC armored cars, and air defense systems — it ranks relatively low in contributions as a share of national GDP at .31%, compared to Poland (.88%) or Germany (.36%).
Messaging from Macron continues to situate France as more favorable to brokering a cease-fire with Russia than the U.S. or other European powers. But if Macron’s qualifications irritate foreign allies, he remains less pro-Moscow than most leading alternatives in French politics, including the center-right Republican party, the ultra-nationalist National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, and the far-left Left Front.
While the Elysée still aspires to the glory of brokering peace talks, the Moscow relationship now has limited potential as Russia’s re-invitation into the European community seems more distant than ever. Thus Macron now turns to China to strike an independent path from American leadership — and incidentally, from Germany too, which has become more critical of China in recent years.
France’s outreach to the Chinese Communist Party predates the Washington-Beijing reconciliation under Nixon, as De Gaulle established diplomatic relations in 1964. Like the U.S., France sold to China key defense technologies in the late Cold War including helicopters and anti-aircraft missiles.
Curiously, given Macron’s recent remarks, France has also historically maintained cordial relations with Taiwan. In the 1990s France sold Taipei 60 Mirage 2000-5 fighters and six La Fayette-class frigates despite Chinese objections. Thus Macron’s recent implication that Taiwan was of no interest isn’t in keeping with prior foreign policy.
Does Macron Have a Point?
Macron deserves criticism for ignoring legitimate concerns related to China’s military expansion, extra-legal territorial claims, anti-competitive practices, and human rights records. And talking up European autonomy, when France is doing less than the U.S. or Berlin in response to the crisis in Ukraine, is ill-timed.
However, he may have a point that viewing China through a prism of zero-sum competition and inevitable military conflict risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. History shows it is not inevitable that rival superpowers must go to war. Wars do happen when leaders feel cornered and desperate, or conversely when they grow overconfident of their capability to carry out a swift, victorious war.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine followed a failure of diplomatic and economic incentives to dissuade him from a war of conquest. We are not yet in a world where such supplications render obsolete the role of military power and alliances in deterring or defeating military aggression.
However, political and economic incentives have so far convinced Beijing it’s not in its interest to supply arms in quantity to Russia. Thus Macron’s rhetoric can be seen as a call to bring more carrots, not just sticks, to the table when negotiating with China.
Macron’s concept of European autonomy also has a reasonable foundation. The Trump administration showed that U.S. leadership, which Western Europe has depended on for security since World War II, has the potential to become unfriendly and unreliable. Europe therefore does need to be prepared to sustain its own foreign and security policies should nationalist and isolationist forces regain political power in the U.S.
But while Macron might argue his comments were conversation starters to jolt European partners out of the status quo, the actual conversation has mostly been one of irritation with Macron’s grandstanding.
Of course, European states may each run their foreign policies as they please, but individually they lack clout and can be played off against one another, much as China played France against Germany in Macron’s recent visit. Also impeding European unity are increasingly undemocratic spoilers like Viktor Orban’s Hungary — states that benefit from integration in NATO and/or the EU while rejecting their organizational values.
Macron’s recent China diplomacy is obviously unhelpful to U.S. efforts to economically decouple from China. But as long as the far-right or far-left remain out of the Elysée palace — probable, but not guaranteed — Paris will likely participate in sanctions on China should it blockade or attack Taiwan, much as it did with Russia. And should the U.S. get involved in a shooting war, France might still dispatch its carrier or submarines in solidarity.
For now, Macron carries on the well-established French tradition of refusing to fall in line with Washington’s program.
Sébastien Roblin has written on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including 19FortyFive, Popular Mechanics, The National Interest, MSNBC, Forbes.com, Inside Unmanned Systems and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China. You can follow his articles on Twitter.
Angry drunk Russian bear with balalaika
April 17, 2023 at 10:51 pm
The article is one-sided: the United States is above all. US interests are paramount. The USA is the main gendarme on guard of the world order invented by the USA. Do you think that all other countries are slaves of the USA? No, not all!
April 17, 2023 at 11:52 pm
Macron is just a here-today-gone-tomorrow piece of french dressing. No weight at all.
The US is today’s reincarnated version of yesterday’s hitler’s germany & hirohito’s Japan combined. And 10,000x more deadly.
It is the deadly presence in the room where its doors are remotely controlled.
Macron ? Today’s number one Parisian street joker. Nothing more. For now.
Remember sarkozy. He was more thick-blooded yankee stuff than people like Ted Cruz or Jake tapper yet the NSA was busily bugging his office gear. Macron is sure to have his body already mapped and videoed.
So, macron can’t be depended upon. His words mean nothing. Carries no weight. Here today gone tomorrow.
Today, the only thing to learn from or by a foreign example is north Korea. Yeah, north Korea. Not empty jokers like
macron or xi jinping who’s currently trying to peddle a false image of himself being a Father X’mas or Santa Claus combined with a Nelson Mandela’s universal appeal.
Macron is a person of no consequence. Zilch. None.
April 18, 2023 at 2:14 am
Taiwan is part of China. Period.
This is recognized by ALL, I repeat, ALL countries in the world, including the United States.
How they want to settle their civil war, peacefully or forcefully, is up to them.
US needs to stop poking it’s nose in other countries’ affairs and look after the sorry state of its own streets.
April 18, 2023 at 2:55 am
French rhetoric about french or european autonomy is merely a mirage (not the jet plane but instead figurative illusion) and must therefore be dismissed completely.
The US is forcing near countless minions & vassals & client states to come tightly under its armpits via various legal or illegal methods so that it can wage a glorious ww3 against perceived ‘rogue’ enemies.
It all started with Ronald Reagan with his totally infamous SDI or star wars project. It envisaged using space weapons to neuter and destroy potential rivals’ ability to fight.
The Soviet union tried to counter that highly dangerous development through its own ‘polyus’ system but failed.
Later, skipping the less aggressive g h w bush, came notorious bill Clinton with his satanic plan to expand NATO, dominate the Balkans and also the middle east.
Clinton’s plan was to establish US as the preeminent power on Earth with magical power to control all domains of war and battle and thereby crush all rivals.
Then came g w bush or bush the younger or simply bush junior. His smartest-of-them-all plan was to invade Iraq followed by a global war against ‘rogue’ entities plus nations.
His plan included the formulation of the concept of preemptive nuclear strike by US to control the world. Thus US naturally withdrew from the very important ABM Treaty and the establishment by DoD of the doctrine of joint nuclear ops.
After bush came Obama with his global drone war and the big pivot to Asia.
A brief respite for world came after Obama though trump gave green light to US Navy to arm its nuke subs with fuzed warheads designed to vaporize enemy land missile silos.
After that, came Biden, the quarter mad or mentally unbalanced leader with his big plan for ww3 starting with his proxy war against Russia and his vow to fight china and north Korea and Iran (nothin’ is off the table) with nobody ever allowed to supercede US. Is he god or something else very almighty.
Thus the world is being slowly and invariably getting taken HOSTAGE by Washington through the plans of its various presidents or madmen and therefore people like macron are POWERLESS to stop it and their words about ‘autonomy’ are merely empty hot air.
April 18, 2023 at 5:01 am
France was a great country and had a huge influence on the world in the Middle Ages. And now attempts to regain their greatness are doomed to failure. France will never become a great power because of its recent history, when it has shown itself to be a traitor, a coward and an unreliable partner. Especially during the Second World War. Now France is a nuclear power. But the French will never use it, even if they are hit by a nuclear strike from either Russia or China. They would rather surrender and give their women to the enemy, as they did in the war against Germany in 1940.
April 18, 2023 at 5:37 am
France was a great country and had a huge influence on the world in the Middle Ages. And now attempts to regain their greatness are doomed to failure. France will never become a great power because of its recent history, when it has shown itself to be a traitor, a coward and an unreliable partner. Especially during the Second World War. Now France is a nuclear power. But the French will never use it, even if they are hit by a nuclear strike from either Russia or China. Modern France is too cowardly a country.
April 18, 2023 at 12:21 pm
The French are an odd lot, speaking from an Anglo-Scandi perspective we have all come to terms with the idea of our days of empire being behind us and relegation to the rank of 2nd tier powers. The French on the other hand it seems haven’t done so. They are no longer a ‘great power’ and they need to wake up to that fact.
There is nothing wrong with being a 2nd tier power, many have a respectable diplomatic corps, military, influence etc relative to their size. That America is and is likely going to continue being the pre-emminant power well into the 21st century is self evident. Between its economic, energy and mineral wealth with the best demography of developed countries the only thing that can sabotage America……. is Americans themselves. The French need to accept this.
Macron talks of strategic autonomy, that sort of make sense if by that you meant that European countries take care of their own regional security within the NATO framewor. It doesn’t make sense if you’re talking about being world diplomats, taking a different line to the US and in opposition to their direct interests.
I suspect the relative shift of geopolitical power within the EU has a lot to do with Macron’s machinations, the thought of a Tallin, Warsaw, Kyiv axis within the EU (possibly with Helsinki, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen bankrolling them is anathema to his vision of what France SHOULD be.
In short this is French (probably with tacit German approval) worrying about its geopolitical relevance
Sofronie the Monk
April 18, 2023 at 12:24 pm
@Arash: Does that go for the Donetsk “republics” as well?
@404: “notorious bill Clinton with his satanic plan to expand NATO, dominate the Balkans and also the middle east.” Funny how all those European countries welcomed that plan and live a lot better than before, huh? Guess we didn’t want to go back under Russia’s domination. Fascist of us, ain’t it?
April 18, 2023 at 1:32 pm
Macron’s statements about avoiding entanglement in the U. S. scheme of going to war over Taiwan is Macron acting for France’s National Interest.
If Macron was representing French interests, these statements are what I would’ve expected.
For the U. S. foreign policy establishment… it’s a fire bell in the night.
War against China over Taiwan will likely be a lonely experience for the United States… and against its Vital National Security Interest.
There are actually many reasons (economic & political) for all of Europe to stay out of the Taiwan affair.
Forget sophisticated sand… that’s not a reason to go to war.
April 18, 2023 at 2:14 pm
Macron has to at least pretend that he does not serve his imperial masters and that France is not yet a Satellite state or the nationalist will have his head at the next election and put an end to the game. It is very is unlikely that he has suddenly grown a pair, but you never know, perhaps AU sub deal sent a message to the French to put up and shut up and the pension plan has changed his calculation. Perhaps Biden has been rubbing his French nose in dodo like Trump and the Xman gave him an out.
April 18, 2023 at 2:39 pm
“Eastern European states arguably see Washington as a more reliable partner than France and Germany.”
Those that know them best, and are the most experienced of authoritarian belligerence (Russia, Turkey, etc.), recognize the weakness of Leftist ruled Europe. Which isn’t even spending the tiny NATO required minimum of 2% of GDP on defense. Trusting France or Germany to come to your aid in an emergency is foolish, as what realistically can they provide? Militarily and logistically they are pathetically weak.
April 18, 2023 at 2:41 pm
God bless people in the world.
France President Emmanuel Macron has some points and is rational.
His speech this year is the same as his Speech by the President of the French Republic at the conference of ambassadors in 2019. His policy is for the France people, realize France’s policies in 1789, and avoid being put in danger by the United States and EU. Therefore, he asks the France people to lead the people in Europe and take the dangerous future.
His policy thought is about freedom, equality, democracy, and progress. He opposes the wrong foreign policies of the people of London, Ireland, the Frankfurt School, and the District of Columbia in the past few decades, so he says that multilateralism is a foreign policy exclusive to France, but the policy of Democratic Party-Neoconservatives is not multilateralism.
His words are exaggerated slightly, but he has an important point. 60 years ago, the U.S. nuclear policy show that Europe members of NATO do not pay for their mutual defense compact obligation. Europe countries make socialism policies, but do not have enough defense spending, so the current NATO cannot fight socialism Russia. Therefore, France President Macron says that the France people must lead Europe people to establish the Europe military.
However, because of multilateralism is atheism, France President Macron does not obey Ten Commandments, the international justice he say is only about freedom, equality, democracy, and progress, these human rights policies proposed by the Democratic Party, German SPD, Communist, and Nazi, but is not moral policy, so the France he expect is impossible to achieve justice, and international justice is the reason of the unprepared and flustered NATO.
The France President makes this policy and talks about the morality of France military, but he does not express the correct constitutional thought. His policy is the same as the District of Columbia and the RAND, still promoting atheism, so his policy is not moral, and there will not be the Europe military who are humble before God.
The atheism parties in Europe, the District of Columbia and the RAND Corporation blame themselves as against French President Emmanuel Macron. But they don’t obey Ten Commandments, they want freedom and progress without morality, so democracy and science cause global warming, such as steam engines. Because they only want absolute equality and democracy, they make wars, and cause more carbon emissions. So they should not blame France President Macron, but should confess and repent to God.
Just thinking about the right and wrong of France policy with the moral issue in real life, we will know that the SPD, Democratic Party, the neo-conservatives and Communist Party are destroying the whole world. We don’t know how much Carbon Emissions the Ukraine War caused, and how much carbon emissions and radiation pollution will be in the future Western Pacific War. This is one of the future dilemmas that France President Macron tells to the people in France. He also talks about CBRN and related market economy issues.
We shall pray to God. At any cost, we will fight atheism parties and to prevent the end of the world caused by people in the world.
60 years ago, in the US nuclear war policy debate, some people said that we cannot prevent nuclear war by believing science. The cause of war is politics. We could prevent nuclear war with the right political thought only.
God bless America.
April 18, 2023 at 2:53 pm
I respect French military forces but have no respect for their government, or ours for that matter.
As far as Arash, Tawain is not a part of China and was not in the 20th century. China wants the tech and brain of Tawain and is willing to kill to get it. China knows that with Tawain there would be no stopping them on the world stage. Tawain is an international affair much unlike Ukraine.
April 18, 2023 at 4:14 pm
Sorry, I dozed off and wrote the wrong date.
The correct date is 1 September 2022,
“Speech by the President of the French Republic at the conference of ambassadors.”
April 18, 2023 at 11:45 pm
Jeff stated, “Tawain (sic) is not a part of China and was not in the 20th century.
Yes, Japan took Formosa by Right of Conquest in 1895.
The United States recognized Taiwan (Formosa) as part of China during WWII at the Cairo Conference (1943).
The KMT took refuge on the Island upon their mainland collapse.
The United States recognizes Taiwan as part of China.
The One China Policy… and the U. S. reaffirmed that policy when we re-established diplomatic relations with Red China in the early 1970’s and have since recognized Taiwan as such (part of China) and before when the U. S. supported the KMT’s claim to be the government of all of China.
Taiwan is a province of China, a self-governing island.
Many people have the ill informed opinion that… somehow… Taiwan is already independent… it’s not.
And on the official website of the U. S. Department of the State… it’s spell out.
The One China Policy.
Deviating from that policy is a recipe for war against China… that simple.
April 19, 2023 at 10:30 am
Jim: Taiwan is part of China. The Mainland is part of China. Does it mean that the Mainland is not independent either? The situation is the same as what obtains on the Korean peninsula, with split countries mainly caused by the US-Soviet positions after WWII. The US gives the Mainland face by having official diplomatic relations only with them. But this does not cause Taiwan to cease to exist. If the Mainland would commit to no war over Taiwan, there will be no war over Taiwan.
April 20, 2023 at 9:07 pm
God bless people in the world.
One China policy:
Taiwan province is a part of China, mainland China is the other part of China. The Taipei authorities and the Peiping authority each control a part of China territory, because Peiping authority is a atheism party, so the USMC say the rebellion is the Peiping authority, but the other atheism party is the democratic party of Taipei authorities, most people in Taiwan province don’t obey Ten Commandments, they are just like people in Vietnam.
God bless America.