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French diplomacy: shades of 1956?

French diplomacy: shades of 1956?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

As the early part of the new diplomatic year draws to a close, Michel Duclos looks back at the period from President Macron’s annual address to ambassadors at the end of August to the recent announcement that France is recalling its ambassador from Niger. What conclusions can we draw?

He shows that rushing to interpret the current series of crises as the usual stuff of international relations would be unwise. Ukraine, Niger, dormant conflicts (in Kosovo and Nagorno-Karabakh) and simmering tensions (in Morocco), differences of opinion with the United States, policy reassessments, desires for reform and the need to reinvent the system of international governance: 2024 is shaping up to be a decisive year. It will put our diplomatic strategy to the test, just as the Suez crisis did in 1956. In the words of President Macron, to address these challenges, "we must be clear-sighted, without being overly pessimistic".

The President’s speech to the Ambassadors’ conference at the end of August traditionally marks the new diplomatic year in France, akin to the September return to parliament and fall book releases. For diplomats, the rites of this time of year also generally include a speech by the President to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in the latter half of September.

This year was different. President Macron did not attend the UN General Assembly. The French delegation was instead headed by Catherine Colonna, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs. We could debate the wisdom of skipping the gathering, since the UNGA is the only forum where each of the member countries has an equal vote. Not attending also leaves France open to suspicion of preferring more "elitist" meetings, such as the G7 or G20, or ad hoc gatherings convened to address specific topics (the One Planet Summit, for example).

It fell to the President’s televised address on 24 September - although it concentrated on environmental issues - to draw the September diplomatic schedule to a close. Mr. Macron announced his decision to recall the ambassador and gradually pull French troops out of Niger. This despite the President’s determination, forcefully stated during his address to ambassadors on August 28, to resist the authority of the forces behind the coup d’état in Niamey. 

This new diplomatic year is certainly getting underway under testing conditions for France.

This new diplomatic year is certainly getting underway under testing conditions for France.The country has had to contend with a wave of coups - a "coup epidemic" to quote President Macron - in Africa (Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, followed by Niger and Gabon this summer). And the war in Ukraine grinds on, amid the failure of the Ukrainian counter-offensive to make decisive gains.

Russia is even scoring points in the international chess game: witness the expansion of the BRICS and the lack of consensus at the G20 in New Delhi on a statement condemning Russian aggression. Adding to this cluster of crises are new flash points: Azerbaijan’s offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh and escalating tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. In the Middle East, Paris counts for little in the ongoing shifts.

And what could speak louder to deteriorating relations between France and Morocco, historically one of its closest partners, than the deaf ear turned to French offers of aid following the earthquake in the Marrakesh region? 

How has France responded to these global challenges?

President Macron has set out his response to this rolling series of crises and setbacks. We can glean four major points from his address to the ambassadors, as supplemented or corrected by his speech on September 24:

  • First, a Russia policy refresh: Mr. Macron formally laid out the updated policy in his Bratislava speech and confirmed France’s position at the NATO summit in Vilnius. To take just one quotation in his address to the Ambassadors: "Russia cannot and must not win this war. Such an outcome would spell instability in Europe and end all faith in the principles of international law." Mrs. Colonna reiterated this message at the United Nations.

True to the French tradition, President Macron does not lose sight of "what comes after". Conscious that it will have to include Russia, he makes clear that "this cannot mean a ceasefire that recognizes the existing state of play, because that would be tantamount to preparing for a future war, or worse. [What we need] is a lasting peace, one that respects the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people and international law."He underscores the need to involve "all the regions of the world" in any solution. However, the resolution envisioned by the major powers of the Global South is exactly the kind of quick compromise peace deal that shows scant respect for "the sovereignty of the Ukrainian people".

[What comes next] cannot mean a ceasefire that recognizes the existing state of play, because that would be tantamount to preparing for a future war, or worse.

  • The second point centers on the situation in Niger: President Macron’s address to the ambassadors reiterated his defiant stance on Niger. In a standoff with Niamey, France has flatly refused to recognize the legitimacy of the junta installed after the coup. But this was a wager it could only win if ECOWAS, the competent regional organization, delivered on its threat to intervene militarily. Since it has not done so, Paris was forced to change tack. The decision to end its military presence and bring the ambassador home was announced in the President’s speech on September 24. 

Washington and Paris are at odds over their response to the coup in Niger as France’s diplomatic reversals dent the country’s prestige.

The road to overhauling France’s Africa policy - making it less dependent on a military presence - looks to be a long one. And the challenge is not limited to Africa.Washington and Paris are at odds over their response to the coup in Niger as France’s diplomatic reversals in Africa dent the country’s prestige. 

  • Overall foreign policy assessment: Mr. Macron has adopted a new tone, emphasizing the need to be clear-sighted ("without being overly pessimistic"). He is alive to the very real risk of an increasingly fractured world, under pressure from the combined effect of Russian policy, US-China rivalry and the rising major powers of the Global South. In a startling sentence, President Macron says "... the international situation is becoming more complicated and is at risk of weakening the West and more specifically, our Europe." This is a far cry from the Macron of old, whose attempts to position French diplomatic policy as more than East vs. West 2.0 - the confrontation we are now de facto engaged in - often earned him comparisons to de Gaulle or Mitterrand.

Have the President and the country’s other leaders assimilated all the consequences of the foreign policy shift? Undoubtedly not yet. France’s response frequently boils down to asserting that global developments confirm the wisdom of the "sovereignty agenda" it wants to set for the European Union, and, for President Macron, a "third way" in the Asia-Pacific region. 

He notes a “[...] a risk of weakening the West and more specifically, our Europe”, a far cry from the early comparisons to de Gaulle or Mitterrand. 

  • The fourth and last point is multilateralism: tackling global challenges such as climate change, development and many other pressing issues, from our oceans to artificial intelligence through international cooperation. A multilateral approach remains a foundational part of French foreign policy. The President - again astutely - said that the need for international cooperation is more acute than ever in our testing times, just when division makes it even more difficult to achieve. He is stepping up initiatives in this area - for example the recent Summit for a New Global Financing Pact, held in June 2023, aimed at reforming international financial institutions (IFIs) so that the poorest countries can access the financing they need.

The President – again astutely – said that the need for international cooperation is more acute than ever [and] is stepping up initiatives in this area.

Does he think that these actions by France will not be enough to reboot the IFIs in their current form? And to prevent global governance structures from being weakened even further? In his speech to the ambassadors, he went to some length to state his willingness to reform governance of international financial institutions - even at the risk of eroding Europe’s and France’s privileged position within them: "we must reform governance of the IMF and the World Bank. We cannot tolerate a situation where those at the table represent systems that in essence are determined by affiliate members, and for these to be only the rich member states."

The United States is not ready to align with this stance, although the US does agree with France on the need to reshape and beef up IFIs (see President Biden’s decision to unlock $20 billion in addition funding for the World Bank).  

In a joint interview with diplomat and former Minister for Foreign Affairs Hubert Védrine on radio station France-Inter, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin suggested that we are in a "1956 moment", referring to the 1956 Suez crisis (the nadir in French foreign policy under the Fourth Republic), which forces us to rethink many aspects of our foreign policy.

Compelling though the comparison may be, there is no denying that with every new development, from the war in Ukraine and France losing its foothold in the Sahel to enlargement of the EU’s borders and an increasingly assertive Global South, this is a moment of truth for our foreign policy.

Dominique de Villepin suggested we are in a “1956 moment”.

We note, as has President Macron, that the avenues open to French foreign policy include the need for new formats for cooperation between the EU and major emerging powers. Simply strengthening bilateral ties will not be enough. All in all, the task facing French leaders in the near future extends far beyond overhauling our policy towards Russia and rethinking our military presence in Africa.

Image copyright: Teresa Suarez/ POOL / AFP

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