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Macron, Year II - Progressivism in Foreign Policy

Macron, Year II - Progressivism in Foreign Policy
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Emmanuel Macron’s election as President of the French Republic had an undeniably positive impact on France's image throughout the world. It is excessive to claim that "France is back" - it had indeed never left - but it is true that the way international players, both private and public, see the country has changed.

Furthermore, the new President dedicated much of his time (and energy) to international affairs during his first year in office. It is said that a fifth of his time was spent travelling abroad. During his several trips to Africa - be it his speech in Ouagadougou or the ones he delivered in Abuja - he was able to breathe new life into France’s relationship with the continent. As the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide approached, he had the courage to re-examine this painful issue, even if going so far as promoting the candidacy of Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr Kagame for the position of Secretary General of the International Organisation of La Francophonie in the pursuit of his goal to reconcile France with Kigali was quite strange. He personally invested himself, with remarkable tenacity, in the reorientation of France’s action in the Sahel. He notably sought to develop the political and development aspects essential to the completion of the French military intervention, thus prompting regional actors to organize themselves (the G5), mobilizing external support, etc.

In Asia, the President's trips to China, India and Australia, and his openness towards Japan illustrate the French willingness to find new sources of support. His speech in Xian - perhaps his best foreign policy speech - politely but firmly expressed a greater lucidity towards China: "the silk roads cannot be univocal". 

Yet if one wants to make a first assessment of Mr Macron's foreign policy over the past year, one must certainly focus on the four main bets he took, and which have guided his action abroad: a new role for France in the Middle East, the revival of Europe through the rejuvenation of the Franco-German couple, a more cooperative relationship with President Putin, and the establishment of a trusting relationship with Mr Trump.

Emmanuel Macron's four bets

First bet, the Middle East.

This bet was amply justified, because the security of the French and of the Europeans depends - both in the short and medium term - on the appeasement of tensions in this region. Within a few months, the President established a network of personal contacts with most regional actors. He multiplied initiatives to defuse certain crises (Lebanon) or try to resolve others (Libya). In Syria, he tried to find some room for maneuver, in particular by trying to convince Mr Trump to maintain a military presence in the North-East, but also - we will return to this topic later - by trying to reach an agreement with Russia on a way out of the crisis. 

It gradually became clear that Iran was the overarching issue, given that it defines the main divides of the region, and even beyond. It has become a key factor in the transatlantic relationship. President Macron, who differs from more cautious European partners, put himself forward by presenting, from September 2017 onwards, ideas to try to keep the Americans in the nuclear deal (JCPOA). As Trump decided in May 2018 to withdraw the United States from the deal, the Europeans now seek a way to convince the Iranians to stay nonetheless. To this end, they must demonstrate their capacity to resist American secondary sanctions, which for the time being seems beyond their reach.

New pitfalls certainly await us in the pursuit of this great affair: the need for Europeans to align themselves with American sanctions if the Iranians in turn leave the JCPOA, the possibility of a regional conflict if tensions between Iranians, Saudis, Israelis and Americans degenerate, or, on the contrary, a potential direct agreement between Washington and Tehran that would marginalize Europeans - probably not the most likely scenario, but it cannot be entirely ruled out.

Second bet, Europe.

It is perhaps in this field, the most crucial for France, that results are most disappointing. Progress has undeniably been made: French officials point out that many of the proposals outlined by Mr Macron in his speech at the Sorbonne are in fact in the process of being implemented. More generally, the "vision" the President expressed - "European sovereignty" - along with his enthusiasm, his direct style and his involvement left a lasting impression to all. Take for instance Timothy Garton-Ash's admiring article published in The Guardian on 31 May 2018.

In this article, however, the British professor notes Mr Macron's relative isolation on the European scene. This can be explained by several reasons. The first, of course, is the Germans’ absence. Because of the results of the Bundestag elections, the slow formation of the federal government, and the general confusion pervading German politics, Berlin's response to Mr Macron's proposals, particularly regarding the Eurozone, was only delivered in June, during the bilateral meeting at the Meseberg castle. No doubt precious time was wasted, which could perhaps have otherwise been used to build a "momentum", as diplomats say, in favor of French ideas.

Then, the very spirit of the fight seemed to change: migration issues took over all other topics, populists came to power in Italy and Austria, the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr Orban, established himself as the leader of a counter-vision for Europe. In the new European landscape currently taking shape, a "new German question" is likely to arise (will the German Federal Republic recover its internal balance? Will it one day be able to take initiatives on a global scale?). Given the competition between the enemy brothers in power in Rome, Italy could become an even more difficult partner. Meanwhile, the rise of populists in the East has not brought Paris any closer to the countries of Northern Europe.

Of course, this snapshot lacks nuance. France still has an unequalled role as Europe’s pivotal power. Polish and Hungarian leaders can both deviate from the European doxa in terms of the rule of law and yet be flawless Europeans regarding trade or the development of the internal market. Brexit and the Trump factor have for the moment rather strengthened the solidarity between Member States. Yet the fact remains that we are far from the upturn some hoped for after Mr Macron's victory in the elections of May 2017, which had been interpreted by many as a halt to "populism".

Mr Macron's third bet: President Putin.

President Macron has a multi-faceted approach to the Russian autocrat. On the one hand, he is a man of his generation, outraged by the manipulation of information, by the cyber-attacks remote-controlled from Moscow, and aware of the aggressive behavior of the Russian military and security apparatus. On the other hand, he willingly takes up the arguments of those who think it necessary to enter the Russian leaders’ supposed rationale ("those who understand Putin", say the Germans).

A renewed dialogue with Moscow was desirable. It has not had much impact on Ukraine or other essential issues. It can, however, be feared that it will lead us down a dangerously slippery slope regarding Syria. Since the meeting in Versailles in May 2017, Mr Macron made no secret of his wish to find an area of cooperation with Russia on this topic. President Putin, as a great professional, has for a long time more or less pretended to ignore his French colleague's signals and gestures, certainly waiting for him to further shift his positions.

And is it not exactly what France did a few days ago, when it set up a joint humanitarian aid operation with Russia for the population stranded in Ghouta (a suburb of Damascus)? Yes, it is a humanitarian operation, but the Russians’ motives are obviously very political. The Kremlin’s goal is to prime the pump of the gradual and at first indirect recognition (the Syrian Red Crescent is subservient to the government) of the Assad regime by the Europeans, under the cover of humanitarian aid, and later of stabilization and reconstruction assistance, supposed to encourage the return of refugees. Was it really necessary, by collaborating with a Russian air force responsible for thousands of indiscriminate bombings against the Syrian population, to compromise part of the moral authority France still had in this region?

Fourth bet: the establishment of a trusting relationship with Mr Trump.

In a sense, this is the most audacious bet the French President has taken. It was perfectly justified, insofar as it is always preferable for a French leader to have privileged access to the head of state of the world’s most powerful country.

The personal relationship between the two men remains useful, on bilateral security issues for instance. The real reasons that should lead Mr Macron to question himself lie elsewhere. First, America remains a country of lawyers and courts, subject to the rule of law. It would be a surprise if the Trump campaign's ties with Russia and his money issues ended well for the famous real estate developer. Demonstrations of cordiality towards him are likely to be more and more costly.

Secondly, today's Trump (Trump II if we dare say) is not exactly the same as the one on which Mr Macron based his bet (Trump I). Earlier this year, he got rid of his moderate advisors - General McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. He then criticized the Iran nuclear deal, damaged the G7 compound, met Kim in Singapore and Putin in Helsinki. The American President’s "radicalization" has accelerated what must be called a reversal of American policy against the international liberal order and against America's traditional allies. One fact in particular is very important: President Macron's American friend does not hesitate, either directly or through Banon, to support European populist movements and to encourage Mrs Merkel's and even Mrs May's opponents. In short, he is becoming increasingly toxic.

What to do?

Could the assessment above lead President Macron to re-examine at least some of the premises of his policy? It is for him alone to judge, as, in the French system, foreign policy is one of the sectors that falls within the President’s particular responsibility. Let us nonetheless put forward three proposals: one on the diagnosis, the other on the "narrative" and the third on a substantive aspect of the French policy.

A newly structuring parameter.

If there was one lesson to be drawn from the past year, we would formulate it as follows: the Trump phenomenon - or rather what we have called the “American reversal” - now represents one of the most structuring parameters of the French foreign policy, and Europe remains this policy’s priority challenge.

Yet is there not a risk of overinterpreting the turn America took with Mr Trump? The surprise agreement between Mr Juncker and the American President might lead to think that the latter’s hostility towards the European Union can after all be tempered by practical considerations, even if this agreement probably only represents one episode among many others. One of The Financial Times' finest commentators, Janan Ganesh, notes that while Trump flatters his electoral base on a number of issues, it is doubtful that the American public opinion has become anti-Western (and pro-Russian). Some elements in Trump's approach should therefore not be irreversible.

One reason should, however, encourage us to adopt the hypothesis of a lasting change in the American attitude, no matter its future oscillations, because it is set in the more general context of a new cycle: that of the return of competition between great powers. General McMaster and Mr Gary Cohn theorized this idea when they still served Mr Trump in an editorial published in The Wall Street Journal in May 2017. To a large extent, they were right.

As a result, Europe runs the serious risk of shifting from the status of an at least potential pole in a developing multipolar world to that of a "battlefield" for the competition between "real" powers (China and America, the economic giants, as well as Russia, the hyper-efficient geopolitical player). The "battlefield" thesis is supported in Washington by the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs himself. The first response to the challenge posed by the American shift must thus clearly consist in strengthening the European Union’s cohesion, but also beyond that, in reenergizing Europe.

The Europe of progressives versus the Europe of nationalists.

Yet Europe, despite Mr Macron's thaumaturgy, is undergoing a deep crisis, as we have noted after many others.

This crisis is undoubtedly inseparable from the crisis affecting the two great traditional political forces that have guided the European construction, i.e. social democracy and Christian democracy. The conservative European party, the EPP, long dominated by Mrs Merkel's CDU, could well align its position with Mr Orban’s. The latter’s speech on 16 June, on the first anniversary of Helmut Kohl's death, clearly shows that belonging to the far right is compatible with putting forward a vision for Europe. We were skeptical last Summer, in a note published on this blog on the "Gaullo-Mitterandian" and the "French anti-neoconservative" approach in which Mr Macron said he wanted to register his action. Today, on the contrary, we tend to think that the President touches upon the backbone of his policy when he opposes “progressives”, who support an open society and who must be included in the European project, to “nationalists”, whose populist agenda might not seem necessarily anti-European, but which in fact leads to the regression of the European idea. Mr Macron forcefully reasserted this core principle on 27 August, during the Conference of Ambassadors.

Limits to such a depiction of this opposition are obvious: as always, labels are questionable (why "progressives"? why "nationalists"?). It might be counterproductive to reproduce, without saying so, the elite/people divide, which populists take advantage of. Above all, what would the content of a progressive European policy be? The fundamental battle for Europe's soul in the months and years to come - particularly on the occasion of the May 2019 elections - will focus on migration and asylum issues. A hard line on these issues can alone convince voters, but by supporting such a line, can one still call oneself progressive? And if one wants to stay true to liberal democracy, are there not limits one should not cross when adhering to a hard line approach to migration?

It is worth noting that the junction between the “illiberal” movement in Europe and Trumpism occurs on anti-migrant (and implicitly anti-Islam) sentiments. To escape from the dilemma aforementioned, a “progressive” agenda for Europe could precisely combine the tightening of the Union's external borders, the defense of liberal democracy and the rise in power of the European Union’s strategic autonomy and economic sovereignty. In this regard:

The Trump factor led European institutions to adhere to the French idea of the European Union's “strategic autonomy”, at least in theory. It is sometimes even a real conversion, as can be observed in former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski’s op-ed in The Washington Post of 17 July. The implementation of the European Defence Fund and of other initiatives has begun to give some credibility to this approach.

A similar, and necessarily long-term, effort should be made to provide the EU with the means required to defend its “economic sovereignty”, be it to counter American laws’ extraterritoriality or to better control certain strategic foreign investments.

Progressivism on a global scale.

Finally, multilateralism is another natural way to defend Europeans’ interests in a world where powers compete. James Dobbins observes in The Wall Street Journal of 24 July that Mr Trump is neither isolationist no unilateralist, but "bilateralist": he wants to be able to "deal" with divided partners while being in a position of strength.

Some in France conclude that we must move towards a counter-alliance with Russia and China. It is highly doubtful, because the former is not interested in regulating globalization, and the latter is about to take advantage of Mr Trump’s dismantling of Western alliances to develop its own system of domination. All China experts currently visiting Beijing are struck by the extent to which Chinese leaders are pleased by the Trump factor: to them, a few trade concessions seem a low price to pay for America’s general loss of influence.

In reality, from a European perspective, a new global order must be reinvented, in which the European Union must seek to maintain or acquire a capacity for “triangulation” between China and the United States. For President Macron, the question is not merely theoretical: he is launching on 11 November the first edition of the Paris Peace Forum, which aims to position the French capital as a key center for global discussions on these issues (Institut Montaigne is one of the Paris Forum’s founding members). France is also in charge of preparing and chairing the next G7 summit in Biarritz in August 2019 (before passing the torch... to the United States). The way the French handle the G7 will serve as a test, given Mr Trump's gesticulations at the Charlevoix summit and his lobbying for Russia's readmission into the forum.
In this regard, President Macron clarified his position, or rather his strategy, during the speech he delivered before the Ambassadors of France who met in Paris on 27 August He understands the Trump parameter - as well as China's hegemonic inclination and the rise of certain authoritarianisms - in the context of the more global crisis of multilateralism. When confronted to such a crisis, proposing a "ready made" alternative is useless. According to him, one must first identify the topics that correspond to challenges perceived as such by citizens, and provide them with an international response. There is also a need to renew approaches, alliances, and finally what diplomats call "formats" (i.e. informal structures allowing for intensified dialogue between certain countries). At the national level, the President stressed the need for France to develop a connection with the Indo-Pacific and to strengthen its dialogue with Africa.
On a global scale, he is multiplying targeted initiatives such as a meeting, held in parallel of the Paris Forum, of a taskforce involving the United States, the European Union, China and Japan, in order to review international trade rules. He especially wants the French presidency of the G7 - in consultation with the following presidency, that of the United States - to test the capacity to renew international cooperation methods. He proposes to maintain the G7 as a homogeneous group in terms of economic development and adherence to democracy, but also to confer to the forum the responsibility of entertaining a permanent dialogue with China on trade and the environment, with India on digital issues and with Africa on youth.
It is easy to discern the precise goal underlying this proposal, which is to place a group of liberal and/or moderate powers (at the heart of which is Europe), at the center of the global dialogue with the new rising powers (China, India, and one day Africa). Earlier in his speech, he also indicated that he wanted Europe to become "the model for a humanist re-foundation of globalization". The circle is thus complete: bearer of a "progressive" project at the European level, Mr Macron also wants to contribute to the structuring of a "progressive movement" at the global level.

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