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The most important French strategic documents and the speeches on nuclear deterrent delivered by President Macron in February 2020 at the Ecole Militaire and the Munich Security Conference explain France’s security policy and international role within and outside multilateral frameworks.

In 1958, following the establishment of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle wanted to restore France’s rank as a world power. After a meeting with US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the same year, President De Gaulle said, “If France ceases to be a world power, it ceases to be France”. One year later, he said that a country like France must wage its own wars and make its own efforts if it wants to remain coherent with its history, its role and its “soul”.

In 2017, the US led the Bastille Day Parade in Paris as the country of honour commemorating the centennial of US entry into World War I as well as the long-standing partnership between France and the US. (Photo: US Navy)

The policy of grandeur, which dates back to King Henry IV and has developed under the Cardinal Richelieu and, later on, Emperor Napoleon I, had been rediscovered by General de Gaulle. He aimed at giving France a unique role within the West in which the UK was aligned with the US and Germany had limited political power. While supporting the US in various crises during the Cold War, France asserted its independence, acquiring its own nuclear deterrent (A-bomb in 1960, H-bomb in 1968) and withdrawing from NATO’s integrated command in 1966. To counterbalance the US’s irresistible power, France also pledged great political capital to the European integration process and established privileged ties with the newly established African states.

Albeit in a different fashion, President de Gaulle’s strategic legacy has been pursued by all presidents of the Fifth Republic. Therefore, it is not surprising that the four White books, the Strategic Review, and the most important speeches on foreign policy and defence delivered by French Presidents consider the international environment as part of the country’s security policy. Thus, all the documents on which the French defence posture is based on, assign a crucial role to balancing independence and the capability of maintaining a strong international role.

As the stance outlined by President de Gaulle is the basis of French security policy, it has had a key impact on France’s stance within the most relevant multilateral organisations – the UN, NATO and EU among others. The 2017 Strategic Review emphasised that “only a strong France, master of its own destiny, can respond to major contemporary crises, promote its values and highlight the importance of its interests. This ambition cannot be achieved without diplomacy and a defence supported by a large, strong and credible army, capable of tackling all kind of threats in all operational environments”. Over the years, France has worked extensively to maintain and, where possible, increase its international weight, both within the international organisations in which France drives reform processes and outside the given international framework. French multilateral efforts include, among others, pledging human and material resources to coalitions of the willing (usually by participating in combat missions), building ad hoc cooperative frameworks (such as the European Intervention Initiative) and playing the role of mediator when possible (for instance, to calm down tensions between the EU and Russia following the crisis in Crimea).

The Importance of Multilateralism

As one of the five countries having a permanent seat in the Security Council, France assigns an important role to the UN. The gradual transformation from a bipolar to a multipolar world began in 1989 and the emergence of non-state actors has increased international tensions in the last decades. The fact that this multiplication of actors has not been followed by a revision of the existing multilateral frameworks has undermined the trust of some states in international institutions and their activities.

President Donald Trump holds a bilateral meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on 3 December 2019. (Photo: Dan Scavino)

Convinced of the need for common rules for the international order, France continues to regard the UN as the main guarantor of that order. Nevertheless, France recognises that the inability to find effective solutions to global humanitarian crises, partly caused by the paralysis of the Security Council due to veto powers, has dramatically reduced the cases in which the UN is called upon to resolve disputes. Despite their increasing deployment in recent decades, the effectiveness of peacekeeping operations has often been called into question, particularly with regard to the appropriateness of their mandates and the selection and training of soldiers, as well as their lack of preparedness. In view of this, France has been working to strengthen the UN Security Council by proposing a collective and voluntary agreement between permanent members in 2013 to waive the use of the veto in the event of mass atrocities identified by the UN Secretary-General. In September 2019, this French initiative was supported by 102 UN member states, but no decision has yet been taken in the Council. In addition, France has long advocated for the enlargement of the Security Council in both categories of membership, permanent and non-permanent.

It supports the accession of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan to permanent membership and greater representation for African countries. Indeed, continued efforts to conclude the ongoing intergovernmental negotiations on reform and the admission of Germany as a permanent member have been identified as priorities for Franco-German diplomacy, as set out in the Aachen Treaty, signed in 2019 and that entered into force in January 2020.

A Special Role in NATO

France is one of NATO’s founding members and hosted the organisation’s HQ from 1949 to 1966. France actively supported the creation of the Alliance as it marked the official involvement of the US in European defence, thus ensuring the preservation of peace in the continent at a time when international uncertainty was at its highest level. However, the creation of NATO did not fully ease tensions between France and the US, which mainly concerned the Suez Crisis (1956), the intervention in Vietnam (1954) and US response to the Cuban crisis (1962). At the same time, NATO’s structure and objectives have rapidly diverged from France’s international ambitions, especially concerning the development of a fully autonomous nuclear deterrent. After failing to conclude a reform of NATO’s military command aimed at including France and the UK, President de Gaulle has pursued a gradual disengagement from NATO’s commitments which, culminated in the country’s withdrawal from the Alliance’s Integrated Military Command Structures in March 1966.

In the following years, France remained engaged in NATO’s activities, thus minimising the military impact of the withdrawal and preserving interoperability, participating in NATO-led military operations from the 1990s on, namely in the Balkans and Afghanistan.

On 13 November 2017, a number of European countries signed the PESCO agreement for more structured defence cooperation. Indeed, France has promoted some of the most ambitious PESCO projects. (Photo: Tauno Töhk)

In 2009, President Sarkozy announced the return to NATO command structures, but only under certain conditions: maintaining nuclear independence and full discretion over France’s contribution to NATO operations; non-participation in a number of jointly funded expenditures agreed upon prior to return, including the fact that no French forces will be placed under NATO permanent command in peacetime. To maintain its nuclear independence, France decided not to join the NATO Nuclear Planning Group, which determines the Alliance’s nuclear policy. All of this considered, the country has, therefore, an exceptional position within the organisation.

The Importance of European Cooperation

Since the creation of the first European institutions in the 1950s, France has called for establishing a European defence cooperation. Since the approval of the Lisbon Treaty in 2010, French commitment for the development of a real and effective European defence has become stronger. The 2017 Strategic Review identifies the EU as the most important layer of cooperation for the country, followed by bilateral cooperation and transatlantic cooperation. Identifying common strategic interests and launching common defence programmes are at the core of French ambitions for a European defence. France has promoted some of the most ambitious PESCO projects (e.g. ESSOR and the development of the fully EU-developed MALE RPAS) and has been extensively working for the development of common military capabilities. France is convinced that these programmes will allow for better responses to current threats, something that European countries cannot achieve on their own, and will also strengthen the EU’s strategic autonomy.

The fact that France also has an exceptional position within this framework may undermine defence cooperation. One of the key points is that France is a nuclear state with a peculiar chain of command and a specific concept of strategic autonomy. The 2019 Information Report by French Senators Le Gleut and Conway-Moret (written after six months of field research in several European countries) explains how the French institutional framework and semantics influence the perception of the EU allies. For example, the French idea of strategic autonomy is almost opaque to the other European countries.

The French Constitution is an additional source of complexity for European cooperation. While the French President sets foreign policy objectives and has the power to authorise military intervention, the European allies require the approval of the national parliament before any intervention, which has important implications for timing and effectiveness.

What’s Next?

Since the outlines of its basic strategic posture in 1958, France has been able to gain an important international role, and to acquire a relevant position within the organisations it participates in while pursuing President de Gaulle’s belief system.

The return to NATO’s Integrated Military Command Structures in 2009 represents a notable example. In line with the international ambitions typical of grandeur, France can use its leading position within the Allied Transformation Command as a way to reform the organisation from the inside. At the same time, France continues to be at the frontline of EU-NATO relations. Indeed, France continues to reaffirm the need for Europe to increase its strategic autonomy from US and the Alliance, while calling for the creation of an EU pillar within NATO. In this context, French reintegration in NATO one-year before the entering into force of the Lisbon Treaty (which finally establishes the basis for an effective European defence) and of the NATO Strategic Concept (which enhances the Alliance’s cooperation with other international organisations) seems far from being a hazard.

France has progressively acquired the important role of mediator between the UN, NATO and the EU, and President Macron‘s speech on nuclear dissuasion, delivered in February 2020, reaffirms the relevance of the country’s international commitment.

Nevertheless, it is important to note that an active French role in international organisations remains fully subordinate to the country’s national interests and ambitions.

In other terms, the more the scopes of the organisation are in line with French foreign policy objectives and give France a central role, the more it will be committed to. However, French Presidents do not hesitate to question the organisations functioning when this not reflect its strategic goals. The complex relationship with NATO provides, once again, an example. The 2017 Review recognises the crucial role of the Alliance in the defence of Europe and of the Mediterranean and welcomes the efforts to better adapt the organisation to the current geopolitical scenarios and international threats at its gates. Nevertheless, President Macron has harshly criticised NATO, defining it in “brain death” in an interview given in November, after US President Trump’s repeatedly condemned EU member states efforts to increase their defence collaboration , calling on allies to pledge more resources to the Alliance. According to President Macron, the US stance towards NATO promoted by his counterpart questions the eventual activation of Article 5, especially because the US is pursuing a gradual disengagement from Europe.

The divergence of French and US/NATO vital interests seems to have a crucial role here. As the NATO agenda is more and more divergent from the French one (the first one being focused on the Eastern flank of Europe, the second one on the Southern flank), France needs to gradually disengage from NATO if it wants to preserve the capacity to conduct military operations alone. The long-lasting engagement in the Sahel (scarcely supported by NATO allies) and the need to fight terrorism at home put French soldiers and material at risk of overstretch. Furthermore, as US and European countries’ interest diverge, President Macron envisages a ‘window of opportunity’ for convincing several European countries that synergies between France and other Europeans are by nature stronger than US-Europe ties built around alignment to US foreign policy.

Giulia Tilenni is an is an international affairs analyst based in Paris, France.