Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Emmanuel Macron - "Europe on the edge of a precipice"

Emmanuel Macron -
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Emmanuel Macron’s interview published by The Economist on 9 November has been described as the equivalent of a "tweet by President Trump". In fact, the President’s statesmanship, his willingness to face facts and project into the future, and the extent of the (generally outraged) public reaction, revive the memory of General de Gaulle, the first President of the Fifth Republic. Isn’t it in keeping with the times that French citizens are discovering the great strategic ideas of their Head of State in the pages of an Anglo-Saxon newspaper?

The language used in the interview is incredibly direct. As advised by the excellent correspondent of The Economist in Paris, Sophie Pedder, one should read - and reread - the transcript of the entire interview. Though he takes certain rhetorical precautions ("I’m not lecturing anyone"), President Macron above all almost expresses himself off the top of his head, with great frankness and a sharp vision, carrying the image of a man with strong feelings, despite his desire to appear as clinically describing the situation he’s observing. It should also be remembered that the interview took place on 21 October, the day after Trump gave the green light to the Turkish offensive against the Kurds in North East Syria. What are the main messages that filter through?

Contempt towards NATO

The harsh words about NATO struck the most the Anglo-Saxon and European commentators. The French President is evidently still shocked by the American farce in North East Syria, in which he sees (even if he does not explicitly say so) a kind of response to "the collapse of the Western bloc" (quote) signed by Obama's lack of retaliation to Syrian chemical strikes in August 2013. For Emmanuel Macron, "what we are experiencing is the brain death of NATO". He draws this conclusion from Trump's abandonment of the Syrian Kurds - without any consultation with the Allies - and from Turkey’s offensive - a member of NATO - against our allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Yet, the President does not deny that NATO remains operationally useful. He says that "we should reassess the reality of what NATO is in the light of the commitment of the United States". As a supreme outrage, when asked if Article Five (military solidarity commitment enshrined in the Atlantic Charter) still works today, he replies with a pirouette: "I don’t know". He refers to a scenario (not very relevant in reality because this scenario does not correspond to the scope of Article Five) in which Turkish forces in Syria would be attacked by the Syrian army: should we resort to Article Five? To reinforce his argument, Emmanuel Macron takes up the rather spread thesis in France - but less so in Germany - that the American disinterest in Europe preceded Trump and will continue beyond the current American administration.

France’s main European partner made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred a more "responsible" attitude from the French President.

Were the presidential words aiming to provoke an awakening? Did he particularly have in mind the upcoming NATO Summit on 3 and 4 December, which will mark the Alliance's 70th anniversary? In any case, his statements were perceived as such abroad, given the inherently political, and not merely intellectually descriptive, nature and scope of his comments as Head of State.

From a French perspective, Emmanuel Macron simply pointed to the fact that the emperor was naked (and suggested that he put his clothes back on!). However, for Berlin, Washington, London, Warsaw, Rome and many other capitals, the "Macronian warning" is existential, operational, and conceptual:

  • In Europe - and in sectors that are still important to the American political class -, Atlantic culture represents an existential dogma, against which the French, since the time of General de Gaulle, have been considered at the very least potential heretics. Donald Trump takes this attitude the wrong way - as if Pope Francis were tweeting: "Forget what the Gospel says". Our allies do not perceive President Macron's words as "disruptive" thinking, but on the contrary as a return of the "repressed" Gaullist, eager to harm the Alliance and cynically exploiting the mistakes of the current President of the United States.

In this respect, when the President insists on the efforts he is making to maintain a good relationship with Trump, he is somehow aggravating his case.

  • On an immediately operational level, perceptions are very important in power relations. Our allies reasonably argue that by making the decline of the American guarantee too obvious, the problem is aggravated - especially if there is no replacement device available in the short term. The President can answer this by saying that he is opening a debate for the future; he also points out that he has launched several projects since the beginning of his presidency to strengthen European defense. The fact is that the summit on 3 and 4 December looks like a minefield due to Trump's unpredictable behaviour, the difficulties that the Turkish will raise, the temptation of some allies to settle their problems directly with Washington, etc. Let us not forget either that the Turkish Foreign Minister indicated that Ankara required NATO to register the YPG (Syrian Kurdish organisation) as a terrorist organisation.

In this context, Chancellor Merkel calmly but very quickly refuted Emmanuel Macron's observations. France’s main European partner made no secret of the fact that they would have preferred a more "responsible" attitude from the French President.

  • Finally, conceptually, the idea that prevails in Germany in particular (with exceptions, including the notable one of AKK) is that a new American administration would allow the "restoration of the previous situation", the return to the calm waters of the American guarantee. As already noted, the diagnosis is different in France, as shown for example by Benjamin Haddad's excellent book (Paradis Perdu) or Gérard Araud's analyses (Passeport diplomatique).

The German perception is probably a simple denial, the French analysis is perhaps too schematic. This issue should be further discussed among Europeans.

The settling of scores with Europeans?

A young analyst from the Atlantic Council, Olivier-Rémy Bel, points out that NATO's fate is not at the heart of Emmanuel Macron's observations. The President's central concern is Europe. For him, the questioning of American protection is only one aspect of the European crisis. Europeans have forgotten that Europe is a project that goes beyond the economy. They behave as if the market was answer to everything - the market protected by the American umbrella. "We have lived, he said, in a mercantilist world with secure alliances." We did not understand in time that the tragedy of history, the fracturing of the world, the political and security agendas dominating economic agendas, are now all back. We find it difficult to accept, for example, that "at a time of globalisation, the ultimate guarantor of world trade could become protectionist". European governments, divided and weakened by the populist wave (of which, with the Yellow Vests, France is not spared, he notes), have not been able to meet in time either the challenge of the Eurozone or that of immigration. At a time when, moreover, the authoritarians - Russia and Turkey - are on the verge of resurgence, and the prospect of a US-Chinese G2 marginalizing Europe is looming.

Taking up ideas he had formulated at the beginning of his term in office, Emmanuel Macron returns with particular emphasis on the need for Europe to think in terms of sovereignty, geopolitics and power, in particular in two areas: defense and technology. He also underlines the leading role that the EU should play on climate change. It is perhaps on technological issues that the French President is most striking in his analysis. He focuses on two aspects: 5G and data, i.e. Chinese digital mastodons on the one hand, and American GAFAs on the other. This, he explains, is where European sovereignty will be at stake in the coming years. However, so far, Europe has only dealt with these issues in terms of free movement, competition and monitoring the rules of a market that is as fluid as possible: it must finally adopt a policy of power capable of enforcing its sovereignty.

Endorsing his thinking to the fullest - or simply answering journalists' questions in clear-cut terms -, Emmanuel Macron tackles other subjects, revealing what must be called a frustration with Europe. He agreed that the Germans have moved on the Eurozone budget (although we have "a problem of scale"). On the other hand, he strongly questions the policy of budgetary austerity ("the debate about the 3% of national budgets and the 1% for the European budget, belongs in the past century").

Emmanuel Macron returns with particular emphasis on the need for Europe to think in terms of sovereignty, geopolitics and power.

We would need to "rethink our macroeconomic deal" in which Europeans finance, through their savings, investments for the future of Americans, and this, at a time when China is "investing massively".

Finally, the President defends his choice to refuse, against most other Europeans, to open accession negotiations with Macedonia and Albania. Against criticism alleging his loss of an opportunity to "play geopolitics", he argues that a policy of power cannot be limited for Europe to a policy of enlargement. He swiftly mentions the fact that the integration of Albania seems to him to be a higher priority and that the real ticking time-bomb in the Balkans is Muslim Bosnia.

How will French partners receive these blows? At a glance:

  • The President takes care to repeat on several occasions that the projects he has launched in the field of European defense (European Intervention Initiative, CEECs, European Defense Fund, Franco-German tank and aircraft of the future) are progressing. He indicates that this is not the most divisive subject among the partners. The reader comes to wonder if Emmanuel Macron does not substitute autosuggestion for shock therapy in this field. Should it not be feared, however, that by pushing them on NATO - and, we will come back to this, on the relationship with Russia - the French President is taking the risk of making his partners more suspicious of European defense projects? Moreover, will the time not come soon to articulate these projects with NATO in a more thorough manner that goes beyond the assumption that they are "complementary"?
  • Through what he calls "technological sovereignty", does the French President not revive (with skill, it must be said) the whole question of industrial policy in Europe? He notes in passing that these technological issues, as well as defense issues, will be the responsibility of the future French Commissioner. However, does France have any specific instruments or policies to propose? Similarly, what is the roadmap for the "budget stimulus" that Emmanuel Macron is calling for.
  • Another even more sensitive point concerns the relationship with Russia. After stressing the serious breach of solidarity constituted by Trump’s desertion of the SDF and the Turkish offensive, the President said: "It makes two things all the more essential on the military and strategic level. Firstly, European defence—Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability. And secondly, we need to reopen a strategic dialogue, without being naive and which will take time, with Russia. Because what all this shows is that we need to reappropriate our neighbourhood policy, we cannot let it be managed by third parties who do not share the same interests".

Confirmation of the Macronian shift towards Russia

Relaunch the strategic dialogue with Moscow because of the dislocation of solidarity within the Atlantic Alliance? The argument may seem counterintuitive in European capitals already worried about what appeared to be a French "cavalier seul" (lone ranger) engaged since this summer in this field. Would common sense - which sometimes has its merits - not rather consist in considering that the new Russian assertiveness is one of the reasons for the need to strengthen Europe's defenses?

Emmanuel Macron prefers to approach the Russia-Europe relationship from a different angle. He takes up the classic analysis1 of the gap between Russia's external ambitions and its internal weaknesses (GDP equal to that of Spain, demographic problems and others). He considers that Russia's current "model" - "over-militarisation, conflict multiplication" - is not "sustainable"  in the long run. What would be Moscow's alternative options? First option: "rebuild a superpower by itself". According to Emmanuel Macron, Putin's "identity-based conservatism" in Russia has cut him off from the reserves of Muslim immigrants who could have boosted his economy. This solution is now closed. Second option: "the Eurasian model". That would amount to accepting satellite technology from China. For the French President, the only real option for Russia is "Re-establishing a policy of balance with Europe. Being respected". The journalist pointed out to the interviewee that his reasoning is based on logic and not on Putin's behaviour.

The President replied that, on the contrary, he took into account the psychology of his Kremlin interlocutor: "His behaviour in recent years has been that of a man who was trained by the [security] services with a state that is more disorganised than we realise. It’s a huge country with the logic of power at its centre. And a kind of obsidional fever, that’s to say the feeling of being besieged from everywhere. He experienced terrorism before we did. He strengthened the structure of the state (we admire the euphemism!) at the time of the Chechen wars, and then he said: 'it’s coming at us from the West'". A little earlier, the President had said of his Russian counterpart: "For him, the 1990 deal wasn’t respected; there was no 'safe zone<'." In short, Mr. Macron's comments contain a well-known argument, undoubtedly reinforced by the now quite numerous conversations he had with Mr. Putin. His conviction now seems to be entrenched: "If we want to build peace in Europe, to rebuild European strategic autonomy, we need to reconsider our position with Russia".

What is striking in Mr Macron's analyses is a business like vision of Russia, the rationality he lends to the Kremlin's decision-makers.

In passing, Mr. Macron also reiterates the argument that "we have the right to autonomy, not just to follow American sanctions" without abandoning his sense of "at the same time" (en même temps in French): "to rethink the strategic relationship with Russia, without being the slightest bit naive and remaining just as tough on the Minsk process and on what’s going on in Ukraine".

To the question "What does that mean in practical terms?", Emmanuel Macron answered by quickly mentioning several avenues: terrorism, frozen conflicts, cybersecurity. Surprisingly - given the differences over Syria and the limited Russian strikes against Daesh - he mentions terrorism as a subject "we’re aligned on". Beyond these avenues, the President imagines a kind of open-hearted dialogue with Putin: "What guarantee does he need? Is it in essence an EU and NATO guarantee of no further advances on a given territory? That's what it means. It means: what are their main fears? What are ours? How do we approach them together?”.

Why, there too, did the comments to The Economist provoke negative reactions in Europe?

  • <There are undoubtedly subordinate reasons, the comfort of habits, the addiction to follow Washington, or the regret that the initiative came from a country like France, which is not most directly interested in the Russian question (the relationship with Russia has much less impact here than in Germany or Poland).
  • The reaction of Donald Tusk, as he takes over the leadership of the EPP, is symptomatic of a deeper misunderstanding: "And this is why when I hear Macron's words, that ‘we must reconsider our position with Russia, to rethink the strategic relationship’, I can only express hope that it will not happen at the cost of our common dreams about Europe's sovereignty". The President having expressed, in his interview, the wish that Viktor Orbán will help him convince the Poles, Mr. Tusk answered "Maybe, but not me, Emmanuel".

What is striking in Mr Macron's analyses is a business like vision of Russia, the rationality he lends to the Kremlin's decision-makers. A large part of European opinion - not only in Poland and the Baltic States but also in the Scandinavian countries and Germany - sees first and foremost the actions of a hostile state which hostility is not grounded in supposed Western political errors, nor in historical reasons, but in both current and systemic motives of building an opposite system to the Western model. Russia’s real face for our neighbours shows itself in the annexation of Crimea, which Mr Macron mentions incidentally, although it represents the negation of the "humanist Europe" he supposedly incarnates. The wound is still open for countries that are geographically closer.

Which European leader does Emmanuel Macron want to be?

The interview of the French President with The Economist reveals a double paradox. First, the negative reactions to it in Europe may have more to do with form than substance. They may in fact reveal a higher degree of consensus than we think on a number of issues: NATO, the necessary strategic autonomy, technological sovereignty, and even the opportunity for a calculated opening towards Russia. The paradox would be that by saying out loud what many people only whisper, Emmanuel Macron, by the brutality of his expression and a certain clumsiness, has pushed back the emergence of a broad intra-European agreement; the hope is that, on the contrary, when the dust will have settled, probably once the NATO summit test has passed, a more in-depth debate will take place among Europeans on the vital issues raised by the President.

The second paradox is the obvious vocation of Emmanuel Macron as the European leader, and not only by default, in contrast to the unilateralism he seems to be practising more and more (forced formation of the new European Commission, dialogue with Russia, enlargement, and now NATO). How can the French President drag the Europeans behind him if he treats them with such little care? Can we build Europe on a basis that would only be French? The most scathing comment in this regard came from a Russian journalist, Vladimir Frolov, in an article for the Moscow Times on November 14. The editorial writer believes that "French President Emmanuel Macron has taken the baton from Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump to become the main destabilizing force in Europe and the destroyer of the Western world order". This commentator considers that the French President's geo-strategic vision largely overlaps with that of President Putin, for example with regard to the West's responsibilities in destabilising the Arab world, and the resulting migration crisis, or the role of the United States in conflict with Russian interests in Europe.

However, Vladimir Frolov concludes that "if Macron is on our side", this is no reason for Moscow to be favourable to him because he "is viewed as a political lightweight by the Kremlin" and "that his ideas will most likely find no support from other European allies, primarily Germany".

Let's leave the Russian columnists to their speculation. Mr Macron himself notes that while his plan to revive relations with Russia is long-term, only fairly rapid results, particularly on Ukraine, can enable him to overcome the reluctance of other Europeans. More generally, the French President has widened an undeniable gap with his partners, partly because they - and first and foremost Germany - failed to take the ball he threw at them at the beginning of his mandate.

The French President has widened an undeniable gap with his partners, partly because they failed to take the ball he threw at them at the beginning of his mandate.

Isn’t there now, while a new Commission is setting up and perils are accumulating, a greater margin for movement on both sides between him and the major European capitals? By blocking some issues or taking the lead on others, Emmanuel Macron has created room for maneuver to better negotiate within the European Union and build the coalitions needed to advance his ideas. His frustration with Europe fundamentally comes from Germany. One of the most interesting aspects of the interview with The Economist is the underlying concern to spare the Poles and work with Viktor Orbán (the emblematic enemy a year ago!). Macron The Strategist raised his alarm. Will Macron The Tactician seek to wrap Germany in unexpected alliances? Does he intend at some point to re-boost the relationship with Berlin in other ways, for example by counting on a change in the CDU's agenda under the influence of the Greens? What leader of Europe could he be if he isolates himself? Will he not now seek to unite in order to achieve the status of true leader that Europe needs?



1 Classic and yet questionable: for the current Russian leadership, the criterion of success lies in the ability to exist in the world but not as an economic power. It is always a mistake to project on the calculations of the Kremlin leaders the thinking that would be ours were we in their shoes.


Copyright : Eliot BLONDET / POOL / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English