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.
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.