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Zooming in On French Defense

Analysis - 7 January 2022

President Macron had stated three defense objectives: ensuring France’s strategic sovereignty, promoting a common European defense and strengthening ties between the nation and the military. Despite notable achievements, such as increased defense efforts and the creation of the European Defense Fund, this presidential term has been marked by difficulties with Operation Barkhane in the Sahel and the intensification of transatlantic tensions. Nicolas Baverez, who co-chaired the Rethinking Defense in the Face of 21st Century Crises (February 2021) report, and Mahaut de Fougières, Head of our International Politics Program, take stock of the developments in defense during Emanuel Macron’s mandate. 

With only three months to go until the French elections, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions:

  • The Ministry of Armed Forces - In charge of managing the French Armed Forces within French territory and abroad. The current Minister of the Armed Forces is Florence Parly, in office since 2017. 
     
  • White Papers - The White Papers, or livres blancs, define the strategy of the French Armed Forces. The 2013 White Paper on Defense and National Security is the fourth reform declaration of this kind (the previous three having been issued in 1972, 1994 and 2008). This most recent livre blanc defines France’s geo-strateigc interests, reaffirms its commitment to NATO and places particular importance on the African continent. 
     
  • The Military Programming Law 2019-2025 - Known as LPM in France, this law sets the defense policy guidelines and resources for the designated period. It includes a significant increase in the defense budget (+€1.7 billion per year until 2022, followed by +€3 billion per year from 2023). 
     
  • Opération Sentinelle - A counter-terrorism military operation on French national soil put in place in January 2015, following the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks. 
     
  • Opération Barkhane - A French-led anti-insurgent operation against Islamist terrorist groups in the Sahel, active since 2014.

Key Figures: 

  • The LPM has allocated a total of €295 billion to the defense budget between 2019-2025. This sector is the second most costly after education in France. 
     
  • French military spending has increased by 14.5% since 2000. In comparison, the UK’s defense spending has increased by 20% since then, Germany’s by 21.6%, the US’s by 61%, while China’s has increased by 495%, and Russia’s by 183%. 
     
  • 85% of the French reported that they have faith in the military, as opposed to only 51% reporting that they trust the French justice system. 
     
  • The LPM had initially committed to an increase of the defense budget to 2% of GDP by 2025, as per the NATO commitment. The Covid-19 crisis and the subsequent output decline made that threshold attainable as early as 2020, allowing France to join the "2% club" alongside the US (3.73%), Greece (2.68%), Estonia (2.33%), the UK (2.32%), Poland (2.31%), Latvia (2.27%), Lithuania (2.13%) and Romania (2.07%). 

Evaluating French defense and national security concerns:

  • As a presidential candidate in 2017, Emmanuel Macron promised to provide the army with means to ensure France's strategic sovereignty in a context of increased threats. This led to the 2017 Strategic Defense and National Security Review, which then resulted in the 2019-2025 Military Programming Law (LPM). Though the terms of this program have been respected so far, it remains to be seen how the next few years will unfold, especially given that the most significant budget increase (of €3 billion per year) will only start in 2023, i.e. during the next presidential term.
     
  • Human resources will be key to reviving French military power. The increase in manpower planned in the LPM has been accompanied by career incentive measures including a family care plan and a new pay policy. In addition, equipment has been modernized and renewed, and part of Emmanuel Macron’s commitments was also to modernize France’s nuclear forces, but the renewal of equipment is still incomplete. Finally, efforts have been made to improve innovation, digital transformation and space operations.
     
  • The common objective of European defense has been another priority of this presidential term. President Macron has called on his European partners to increase collective defense efforts. And while a number of projects have been launched under French leadership, (the European Intervention Initiative, the Takuba Task Force, the European Defense Fund), European allies remain skeptical of France’s often poorly explained vision. The European Defense Fund will for instance only be endowed with €7.95 billion between 2021-2027, far from the €13 billion initially planned (and wanted by France).
     
  • Macron had promised to strengthen the link between the army and the nation. Accordingly, the size and budget of the military reserve force have both increased. There were 41,047 reservists in 2019, up from 32,303 in 2016. The Fabrique Défense (the Defense Factory), a youth event aiming to raise awareness of French defense and strategy issues, was launched in 2020. Finally, as promised, Operation Sentinelle, which was launched in the aftermath of the January 2015 attacks as a counter-terrorist measure, was resized twice, in 2017 and 2021.
     
  • A major difficulty encountered during Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term concerns Operation Barkhane. The results have so far been mixed. There have been a few achievements in counterterrorism, i.e. the neutralization of several senior leaders of terrorist organizations. But the threat is adapting and expanding away from the epicenter of Barkhane in the Sahel. Macron had been looking for a way out in recent years, in the face of increasing challenges such as unstable local partnerships, mounting criticism from local populations, weak European engagement and a declining support from French citizens. Over 50 soldiers have been killed since 2013, and the operation costs taxpayers over €1 billion per year. After 600 additional soldiers were deployed in the Sahel in February 2020, President Macron finally announced the end of Operation Barkhane in June 2021, though some troops still remain on the ground and French military operations in the region are not over.
     
  • Transatlantic tensions have strongly marked Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term, and have particularly concerned NATO. First, through Donald Trump's obsession with the 2% of GDP commitment to the Organization, a target that many European members, especially France, were far from achieving before the Covid-19 crisis. This was then followed by Macron's "brain death" diagnosis of NATO. While Joe Biden initially brought hope for the return of a strong transatlantic partnership, this was quickly crushed with the US’s unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan and the AUKUS announcement. The latter constitutes a real challenge for France’s Indo-Pacific Defense Strategy, of which Australia was one of the two pillars.

 

See also
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