The French leader’s comments were not meant to be taken as an "either or" choice. France is quite clear-eyed about the long-term effort required to address European capabilities shortfalls and about the value of U.S. support, as expressed last March in Washington by French defense minister Florence Parly. To take a rather French aphorism, it needn’t be "fromage OU dessert, mais fromage ET dessert". Macron’s actual words in the interview were that he thought "attitudes [were] changing and that today European defense is complementary to NATO", adding that "these days, if you don’t have military credibility, in a world where authoritarian powers are on the rise again, you don’t get to sit at the table".
As Patrick Chevallereau highlighted, "France is and will stay committed to NATO as one of its major players. Its armed forces are deployed from the Barents Sea to the Baltic States and the Black Sea, and directly contribute to the credibility of the Alliance at a level matched by only a few of its partners. These are verifiable facts, not rhetoric." Unlike most of its NATO partners, France maintains a full set of military capabilities, including independent nuclear forces, and deploys thousands of troops and assets in areas of conflict in Europe’s southern and south-eastern flanks to address another key part of French – and wider European – security interests. The price paid by France was again highlighted on 2nd December when the country paid homage to 13 soldiers killed while fighting Islamic State-affiliated extremists in Mali.
If the French President’s case as to the strategic challenges facing Europe is hard to fault, do his criticisms of NATO and the way he went about it help midwife a more militarily capable and sovereign Europe? This is much more debatable.
The immediate reactions coming out of European capitals ranged from dismay to shock to anger. Macron’s interview comments came out of the blue, taking his European partners by surprise. No prior consultation, no warning, no preparatory explanation. As a result, responses have been overwhelmingly negative. In an unusually strong rebuke, chancellor Merkel said that NATO was the "cornerstone of security" for Germany, while Germany’s defense minister stated that "NATO remains the anchor of security in Europe. We want complementarity, not competition."