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Don’t trust France to lead on European security

Ukraine's biggest dove has turned into a hawk. Credit: Getty

March 18, 2024 - 10:00am

Emmanuel Macron isn’t the first French president to be likened to Napoleon. The quasi-monarchical nature of the office requires a level of self-regard that positively invites the comparison.

However, Macron is the first French leader in a long time to talk up war with Russia. In comments reported by Le Parisien, he said: “Perhaps at some point — I don’t wish it, and won’t initiate it — we’ll have to have operations on the ground, whatever they may be, to counter Russian forces. France’s strength is that we can do it!”

By “on the ground” he means Ukraine rather than Russia, but nevertheless his contemplation of a face-off between French and Russian forces beyond the borders of Nato is significant.

Certainly, it’s a massive shift from his stance at the outset of the war. Two years ago, while the British were busy arming the defenders in Kyiv, Macron was in Moscow, pleading for peace at Putin’s table. Today, with Boris Johnson long gone, Volodymyr Zelensky losing support, and Olaf Scholz still in his shell, Macron has taken on the role of Putin’s chief antagonist.

To the cynics this is just showing off for the benefit of French voters, not to mention his own ego. But there’s more to it than that. Macron understands that EU member states must be able to defend themselves — either with or without American help. He also realises that as the EU’s foremost military power, this is a leadership opportunity for France (and by extension himself).

His grandstanding on Ukraine isn’t despite the deteriorating situation there, but because of it. If the threat of a Russian conquest doesn’t stampede the rest of the EU in his direction, then nothing else will.

There are many awkward questions surrounding his vision of an EU security pact centred on France. For instance, where will the money come from? How will Europe build the armaments manufacturing capacity required to match Russia’s? And what about Nato? However, the biggest question of all concerns the reliability of France itself. If, in this age of populism, America can’t be relied upon to maintain an Atlanticist foreign policy, then there’s even less reason to trust the French.

While there’s no mistaking where Macron stands, the same can’t be said for the French opposition. Both Marine Le Pen on the Right and Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon on the Left have been accused of pro-Moscow sympathies. What’s more, the clock is ticking on the Macron era because he cannot run for a third term.

His allies are already in a minority in the National Assembly and at the next set of legislative elections in 2027 they could be routed. A leaked internal poll for the conservative Republicans party shows that if elections were held today, the Macronists would lose half their seats and Le Pen’s National Rally would win between 243 and 305 seats — potentially enough for a majority. And, of course, Le Pen is closer than she’s ever been to winning the presidency.

The fact is that France tomorrow could look very different to France today. Its current leader is calling the citizens of Europe to arms, but they’d be unwise to build their security on such a flaky foundation.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Peter B
Peter B
4 months ago

France has provided almost nothing for the defence of Ukraine. USA #1, Germany #2 (though not widely known), UK #3, Denmark a very impressive #4. France is barely troubling the scorers.
Talk is cheap. Especially – correction, always – from Macron.
I suspect this is really about boosting defence export sales – France has taken over from Russia as the #2 world military kit exporter.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
4 months ago

There are very real issues around building an EU Army that need to be addressed, but France’s grandstanding is likely, if anything, to create obstacles to a meaningful, independent defense policy for the EU.
The first obstacle is the internal resistance each country would face from its own armed forced to the idea of a central EU command.
In my view, the way forward would be for smaller-ego EU countries to create a common fighting force and then have France, UK, Germany opt in, on terms already established.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 months ago

what is this insane desire some in the West have for war with Russia? Other than a few very narrowed interests, none of whom would be anywhere near a combat zone, there is no support for that.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Perhaps a little over simplified. It has been clear for some time that Europe, the oldest bloc in the West, can hardly rely upon American taxpayers to provide its defence and still regard itself as an autonomous power. And irrespective of that, American taxpayers are sick of paying for it and are going to stop paying for it any day now, in strategic terms, so it’s not even an abstruse geopolitical debate, it’s a real and immediate problem.

What Macron is doing here is using the very real Ukraine conflict as a means of exposing Europe’s major weakness, hoping to create a sense of urgency around an issue that European policymakers have historically been lazy about, and to concentrate minds on an issue that’s more important than many people like to admit. I say this as one who dislikes Macron myself and cannot stand the political federalism he constantly peddles at the rest of Europe, so please don’t imagine I’m saying this out of some sort of ideological sympathy.

It’s just that he isn’t wrong about quite everything, that’s all.

Susan Grabston
Susan Grabston
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

Whilst I respect your perspective (Macron is.one of the more far-sighted of a very poor crop of European “leaders”), his use of words is unfortunate. This is not a time for loose talk. The world is increasingly twitchy, with multiple hair triggers. Leadership, not exasperation, might serve us all better.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
3 months ago

The French haven’t led on European security since before Waterloo. Why do we still look to a third rate power to define the course of European affairs? They have even been kicked out of their ‘near abroad’ in North West Africa with no action from Macron.

This is classic Macron attempting to pivot the focus onto foreign affairs while his country is falling apart around him. He doesn’t even have the ability to do much in his own country other than to pass legislation which is supported by over 75% of lawmakers. He is a laughing stock around Europe.

John Riordan
John Riordan
3 months ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

Actually it’s a classic statesman’s technique whenever there’s domestic strife: start talking up the flag and what that flag means in the rest of the world.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
3 months ago
Reply to  John Riordan

And it is shared by the UK. The country is falling apart…but let’s spend on Ukraine and the military.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
3 months ago

There’s a great line from Britten’s opera, Billy Budd, that goes;

‘Can’t stand the French
All that bowing and scraping ..’

Monsieur Macron, le petit coq gallois.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
3 months ago

Q: How many Frenchmen does it take to protect Paris?

A: No one knows, because it never happened.

was a joke possibly originating from a disgruntled US about France’s attitude in the past.

France, hopelessly fragmented herself, would stand alone.

Imagine the point scoring opportunities for Islamists also.

There is a significant & growing proportion of Muslim “Russians”.