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NATO as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates

NATO as Seen by France’s Presidential Candidates
 Mahaut de Fougières
Head of the International Politics Program

France is one of the founding countries of the 1949 Atlantic Alliance. However, French policy towards NATO has long been ambivalent. France abides by NATO’s purpose: "securing a lasting peace in Europe, based on common values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law". This is however undercut by a tendency to view NATO as US-dominated and detrimental to France’s independence, which has led Paris to withdraw from the integrated military command of the Alliance in 1966 - before rejoining it 43 years later. On the other hand, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated political and strategic coordination among allies, demonstrating the importance of the Alliance for the security of Europe. Within this context, presidential candidates are voicing their opinions on French-NATO relations, stimulating a debate about what the Alliance has to offer. 

With less than a month to go until the presidential election, this article is part of a new series, French Foreign Policy: Heading for the Ballots, that analyzes each candidate’s approach to a number of French foreign policy issues. 

A Timeline of Events

  • In 1966, former French President General de Gaulle informed the Americans of his intention to leave NATO’s integrated military command. "France," he wrote on March 7 to his American counterpart Lyndon B. Johnson, "proposes to recover on its territory the full exercise of its sovereignty, currently hampered by the permanent presence of allied military elements or by the use of its skies, to cease its participation in the integrated command of NATO." This decision was largely the result of France’s refusal to integrate its nuclear deterrence within the Alliance. 
  • This, however, did not mean that France would leave NATO. Although it remained outside NATO’s integrated military command for 43 years, the French military has participated in all of the Alliance’s military operations since 1995, without being involved in their planning, due to the lack of generals on the supreme committees.
  • In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that France would rejoin NATO’s integrated command on several conditions, in order to guarantee the independence of its armed forces. Ever since this full return, France has held the post of Supreme Allied Commander for Transformation (SACT), based in NATO’s strategic headquarters in Norfolk. 
  • In Novembre 2012, former French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine submitted a report to President Hollande, entitled The consequences of the return of France to the integrated military command of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the future of the transatlantic relationship and the prospects for the outlook for the Europe of defense. ​​The report concludes that a "French re-exit from the integrated command is not an option" and encourages France to be "vigilant and demanding", particularly when it comes to the role of nuclear deterrence and the promotion of European defense, especially regarding the industrial and technological implications of capability initiatives. 
  • In November 2019, French President Emmanuel Macron shocked allies in an interview published by The Economist, stating: "What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO". He added that Europe was on "the edge of a precipice", and needed to start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power; otherwise "we will no longer be in control of our destiny."
  • In 2016, Australia and France signed a contract for France to build 12 submarines for the Australian navy, worth about 30 billion euros. But on September 15, 2021, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced the formation of a new military partnership, aimed at "strengthening and supporting" the defense and security interests of the three allies. Australia then officially notified the French government of the termination of the French contract in favor of a new agreement with the United States and the United Kingdom for nuclear submarines. France denounced this as a "stab in the back" from the three English-speaking countries. The submarine crisis clearly impacted France’s appreciation of NATO, as French-US relations are a key factor in determining France’s attitude towards the transatlantic alliance.
  • Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, NATO rapidly deployed its response force of 40,000 troops to fortify European borders. France announced the deployment of 500 troops to Romania, where NATO’s main base is located, while battalions of 1,000 troops were sent by various countries to reinforce the deterrent force in Poland and the Baltic States. Fighter jets were also sent to support the defense of Ukraine and Russia’s neighbors. 

Key Figures

  • France is the 4th largest contributor to NATO, in terms of budget and national defense spending. The Alliance currently includes 30 members.
  • NATO's civilian and military budgets for the year 2022 will amount to €289.1 million and €1.56 billion respectively.
  • NATO plans to update the Alliance’s Strategic Concept at the Madrid Summit next June. This document, which was last updated in 2010, aims to give the main orientations to NATO’s strategy and to formulate political and military responses to the changing international context. At the same time, the European Union will adopt by the end of this week its Strategic Compass, to provide the EU with a plan of action to guide its security and defense policy in the next 10 years. 
  • French public opinion about NATO has deteriorated in recent years. Positive opinions of NATO have been steadily declining since 2009 (when France reintegrated NATO’s integrated military command). 71% were in favor of the Alliance in 2009, compared to only 50% in 2020 (approximately 10% less than the average for NATO members), with a significant drop all along the Trump presidency. A survey conducted by the German Marshall Fund more recently (although before AUKUS and the war in Ukraine), in June 2021, shows that barely half of the French (52%) consider NATO to be an important and necessary structure for France's security.
  • It appears overall that French public knowledge about the Alliance is very limited: in 2019, only 66% of respondents knew that France was a member of NATO, and in 2020 almost 25% did not have an opinion or did not know about it. 

What are French presidential candidates saying?

Anne Hidalgo - Parti socialiste (left) 

  • The candidate declared at the end of January her desire to not only remain in the Atlantic Alliance but also to "strengthen" it.
  • At the same time, she is in favor of more defense cooperation at the European level and has proposed, as part of her programme on the EU, a European conference on security in order to define "a common strategic doctrine" between the 27 member countries.
  • Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Anne Hidalgo expressed her concern that other candidates, ranging "from the far right to the far left" are "taking turns to denounce NATO’s alleged attack on Russian security forgetting to condemn Putin’s aggression". 

Yannick Jadot - Europe Écologie Les Verts (green)

  • Although he did say he was opposed to "leaving NATO today", the candidate did not elaborate much on his opinion of the Alliance, preferring to insist on European defense: "We will pursue the European initiative to form a core group of Member States to strengthen the capacity for joint intervention, and we will contribute to the strengthening of current structural defense tools, such as the European Defense Fund (EDF), to ensure their success." He did not specify whether or how these arrangements would be articulated with NATO. 
  • Following the re-emergence of NATO in the presidential debate with the war in Ukraine, Yannick Jadot, alongside other candidates from traditional parties, did not fail to attack his more radical rivals for allying themselves with Vladimir Putin while wrongly vilifying NATO.
  • In a debate with Eric Zemmour on March 17, the Green candidate repeated his support for NATO while promoting the construction of "a European defense policy that promotes the voice of France in foreign policy." He said that he hoped that "France can weigh in world affairs and be non-aligned. [...] We need a Franco-German union as a vanguard of the European Union with defense objectives and concrete climate targets."

Marine Le Pen - Rassemblement National (far-right)

  • If the candidate is elected, she intends to withdraw France from NATO’s military command structures. During a meeting on February 5, Marine Le Pen defended France's "full independence" through its own "nuclear protection" and promised "not to be drawn into conflicts that are not ours." She criticized Article 5 of the founding treaty, according to which an "attack against one ally is considered an attack against all allies," and said she was "very opposed to any automatic" assistance. But in an interview given on March 24, Le Pen adjusted her position on NATO with regard to the Ukraine crisis, stating that "it will be necessary to leave the integrated military command of NATO, but it is certain that we are not likely while there is a way in a European country." 
  • If she were to become president, Marine Le Pen has pledged to "increase France’s defense budget to 55 billion" by 2027, as the "current defense budget is insufficient." With regards to the deployment of French troops abroad, she has stressed the need to work with the Americans: "that’s why I don’t want to get out of NATO but out of NATO’s integrated command [...] France must have autonomy and independence while remaining within the transatlantic treaty.

Emmanuel Macron - La République en Marche (center-right)

  • President Macron’s view of EU-NATO relations aligns with that of previous French presidents: "our security inevitably requires that Europeans have a greater capacity for autonomous action. […] Europeans must now take greater responsibility for this European defense […]. NATO and European Defense are two pillars of European collective security" (2020).
  • In June 2021, after facing reluctance from European partners for insisting on Europe’s strategic autonomy - viewed by some as a threat to NATO - Emmanuel Macron clarified his position: "We have succeeded in promoting the idea that a European defense and strategic autonomy for the EU is not an alternative project to the Transatlantic Organization but a solid component of it, one in which Europeans recognize that they also have to take their share of investment and ensure their common security, especially with regard to their neighborhood.
  • The French President, who shocked the Alliance in 2019 by calling it "brain dead", believes that the war in Ukraine has rejuvenated NATO: "this war restores strategic clarification to NATO by bringing it back to the conflictualities of its origins".

Jean-Luc Mélenchon - La France Insoumise (far-left)

  • Jean-Luc Mélenchon is radically opposed to the Alliance, as are the other sovereignist candidates. His booklet on peace states: "Sarkozy, Hollande and Macron have locked France into NATO. The only integrated military alliance in the world, NATO is a tool of subservience to the United States of America. [...] It is possible and necessary to get out of it, in order to promote peace and cooperation independently." He describes the transatlantic alliance as an "archaic" institution which "should have been dissolved at the end of the Cold War [...] it has since extended its action with harmful results for peace and our security." In December 2021, he and other members of his party submitted to the vote of French parliamentarians a draft resolution inviting the government to leave NATO. 
  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine did not change his position on NATO: "Our condemnation of Russia's military intervention does not mean that we have changed our position, on the contrary," he told reporters on February 26. "I have always said that we cannot continue to humiliate Russia by pushing NATO ever closer to its borders. This is a risk they will never accept.
  • On March 6, the candidate proposed that France should form "anti-globalization alliances" to prevent conflicts and act against climate change, rather than remaining in NATO, "a useless organization that causes tensions". "If you elect me, I will embody a non-aligned France" that "does not accept a world order in which there would be NATO on one side and a Russian and Chinese bloc on the other" he added.

Valérie Pécresse - Les Républicains (right) 

  • Following the submarine crisis in September 2021, Valérie Pécresse "questioned" France's military alliances with the United States and the United Kingdom: "Does all this still have meaning today? Are these alliances not called into question by this stab in the back? Shouldn't we bang our fists on the table and tell the United States, that's not done, you don't stab an ally, you respect him, you don't put obstacles in his way. If they are our allies, they should not behave like brutal economic adversaries."
  • However, the right-wing candidate is in favor of guaranteeing Europe’s security through two complementary pillars, not pitted against each other: NATO and European defense. She has also indicated her desire that France stays in NATO’s integrated military command.
  • According to her, "a European pillar must be created within NATO" so that the EU can act independently of the US. With regards to defense strategy, she has emphasized that France should "coordinate in particular with Germany". 

Fabien Roussel - Parti Communiste Français (far-left) 

  • In September 2021, just after the AUKUS crisis, the communist candidate announced that it was time for Europe, and especially for France, to "regain its voice and its independence in matters of defense and foreign policy". "France has always been a leader until we joined the armed command of NATO and, since then, we have become followers. There is no longer any place for Atlantic treaties that date from the Second World War", he added. 
  • Firmly opposed to the Alliance, Fabien Roussel plans to leave NATO's integrated command as soon as the Ukrainian conflict is resolved. When asked about his stance on NATO following the invasion of Ukraine in March 2022, Fabien Roussel said that "it is not about leaving NATO today. What I want is for us to work on the collective security of European countries [...] It is in this context that I question [France’s integration into NATO].

Eric Zemmour - Reconquête (far-right) 

  • Clearly opposed to NATO and France's continued membership, Eric Zemmour has "condemned" Russian aggression but accused the transatlantic Alliance of being "responsible" for the war in Ukraine. The candidate proposes leaving NATO’s integrated command and signing a treaty excluding the entry of Ukraine from the Alliance. 
  • In a debate with Yannick Jadot on March 17, Zemmour spoke out against NATO, and also claimed that "Europe’s defense strategy is a pipe dream that no one else wants - not NATO or the United States.
  • Marion Maréchal, the niece of Marine Le Pen and recent supporter of Eric Zemmour, recently spoke out on the idea of France's withdrawal from NATO's integrated command: "The first lesson to be learned from this conflict is the emergence of a multipolar world, since we can see that countries that will be increasingly important in the decades to come, such as Brazil, India and China, have refused to condemn the Russian intervention or at least have not spoken out. Hence the importance, in my opinion, for France, if it wants to continue to be a power that is heard and listened to, to refuse any form of alignment. And this should be done, as Eric Zemmour proposes, by leaving the integrated command of NATO", so that the country adopts its own diplomacy.


Co-written by Lisa Klaassen and Anissa Nabi 


Copyright: JOHN THYS / AFP

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