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Tracing French Diplomacy: A Brief History of Macron's Foreign Policy

Tracing French Diplomacy: A Brief History of Macron's Foreign Policy
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

Our special advisor, Ambassador Michel Duclos, recently published a book on France's foreign policy: La France dans le bouleversement du monde (France in the midst of global upheaval), l’Observatoire edition. On this occasion, we asked him to assess Emmanuel Macron's diplomacy over the past four and a half years, as well as what to keep in mind for French foreign policy for the coming years. Here is the first of his two-part answer.

President Macron has often stolen the spotlight on the international scene. He is overall perceived as a disrupter who likes to speak frankly, a man with grand visions, but also a leader who wants to achieve results, who fiercely defends the interests of his country and its influence over the world.

Change in continuity

In terms of foreign policy, President Macron has been known to continue rather than to innovate, while at the same time being able to update and modernize the foundations of French diplomacy.

A key example here has to do with military interventions. While he campaigned with an "anti-interventionist" line, Emmanuel Macron did not end France’s military operations neither in Mali, nor in Northeast Syria, or Libya.

Five axes could define the "Macron doctrine":

  • A stronger Europe: this has been an everlasting base of French diplomacy since the onset of the Fifth Republic, and even since the post-World War II period. However Emmanuel Macron broke new ground and renewed France’s approach to Europe when he developed the idea of European sovereignty "not only in geopolitical terms, but also industrial and technological" (Sophie Pedder). The Sorbonne speech of September 2017 (among others) is definitely one to remember for breathing some new air into France’s reasons for sticking by Europe.
  • Effective multilateralism: a classic design of French action in the world, as illustrated by the Paris climate summit in 2015, for instance. Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly emphasized modern forms of multilateralism, including climate, internet regulation, health, and global issues more generally. He has positioned himself as the champion of the One Planet Summits and of COVAX.
  • France as a balancing power: an idea dear to the French, which they associate with General de Gaulle’s legacy. Emmanuel Macron relied on this idea to launch a controversial dialogue with Putin, or to multiply initiatives in the management of crises in Libya, in Syria, in Iran, or in Lebanon;
  • France’s Africa policy, comprising two different policies for Macron: the first one actively seeks to step away from the exclusive focus on Francophone Africa. Macron made efforts to address African youth, attempted to overcome a fractured past (reconciliation with Rwanda, for example), and offered to deal with Africa through the lens of global issues instead (such as vaccines or financing of post-Covid reconstruction). The other policy regarding French-speaking Africa is more traditional, as illustrated by the continued military presence in the Sahel.
  • The Indo-Pacific strategy: though Macron inherited this from his predecessor, he is very much involved in the region. This explains his - and all French officials’ - cold anger at the "back stabbing" AUKUS deal.


The paradox is that though continuity may prevail in the Macron doctrine, the foreign policy analysis he makes is clearly innovative.

There is certainly such a thing as a "Macron style", with a taste for grand gestures and a disposition to tackle problems head on, while at the same time yielding to a French tendency to "ideologize" (Joseph de Weck). The paradox is that though continuity may prevail in the Macron doctrine, the foreign policy analysis he makes is clearly innovative. This has become apparent in his approach to the conjunction between the rise of populism, authoritarianism and American disengagement, and the subsequent risks and opportunities for Europe.

Macron’s three chapters

In La France dans le bouleversement du monde, I outline three distinct periods that break up Macron’s five-year term.

The leader of international liberalism (2017-2019)

Given Donald Trump, and given the weakening of the German Chancellor and the British and Italian leaders, Emmanuel Macron is skillfully establishing himself as the legitimist opposition leader to the White House, while still being the one to whisper in the ears of the American president. This show of funambulism is seen in moments such as "make the Planet Great again" or of the battle to save the JCPOA, which did not nonetheless impede Trump from walking down the Champs Elysées or Macron from visiting the White House.

In the meantime, Macron is firmly managing Brexit negotiations and making European defense or "strategic autonomy" markers of his plea for "European sovereignty."

The turning point of summer 2019 

The Yellow Vests crisis forced the president to step back on the global stage, but the Biarritz G7 summit at the end of August 2019 opened a door for him to "re-emerge" and boost his standing. He launched the dialogue with Putin in Brégançon, without prior consultation with EU partners, failed to facilitate a Trump-Rouhani meeting, and a few weeks later (in November), in an interview with The Economist, made the famous diagnosis of "NATO’s braindeath". From this moment onwards, his stance on Erdogan's Turkey also hardened.

The conjunction of the Russian initiative and the NATO comments shook up the President’s credibility amongst his EU partners and the Americans (especially the Democrats). That was only reinforced by the fact that the failed dialogue with Moscow did not lead Macron to change his attitude.

The moment of truth (Covid-19 and the election of Biden)

In early 2020, the outbreak of the pandemic brought a change of scenery. This confirmed the validity of Emmanuel Macron's intuition on the need for international cooperation ("effective multilateralism"). Above all however, the Covid-19 crisis led Germany to agree to a massive European recovery plan, including a certain mutualization of debts. This was a major step forward for Macron's project for greater European integration.

On the other hand, President Macron appears to be struggling to transition from Trump to Biden. When Biden traveled for his European tour June in 2021, the perception prevailed that among European allies, he was prioritizing the UK and Germany above all. The French president is perhaps paying for the perception he has given the Americans of a certain "strategic ambiguity" regarding China. In the meantime, London did not hesitate to rally around Washington's anti-China crusade, and Germany was regarded as too important for Washington not to prioritize (recall the Nord-Stream 2 agreement). AUKUS was a clear manifestation of this distancing of the Americans from the French. 

In early 2020, the outbreak of the pandemic brought a change of scenery. This confirmed the validity of Emmanuel Macron's intuition on the need for international cooperation.

This is also a moment of truth for Macron's policy in other areas. First in the Sahel, with the repeated Malian military coups and the strategic move by Moscow (which supports the junta) against Paris. Then in the Indo-Pacific, with AUKUS. There will certainly be other key moments in the months to come, beginning with the relationship with Washington, where it is not yet clear if the submarine crisis will re-establish a closer relationship between France and the US. The relationship with London must be observed as well (a fishermen's crisis is to be expected, for example), as should ties with Berlin (there is the risky perspective of a resumption of inflation and therefore a rise in interest rates). There are also the many twists and turns that may occur between now and the presidential election of May 2022.

So what is the overall assessment? 

It is clear that the successes, namely the EU recovery plan and the EU vaccination strategy, cannot overshadow relative failures, such as sterile dialogues with Trump and especially with Putin, or lack of progress in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Libya, risks concerning the Sahel, and other potential crises. 

Three reasons may explain this mixed track record:

  • The personality factor: Macron's impatience sometimes leads him to statements or attitudes that backfire on him. 
  • Some deficiencies in the French decision-making system: the French President ends up excessively personifying the country’s foreign policy. Furthermore, the State apparatus hasn’t yet fully adapted to a new international context, in which the "geo-economic map" is now as important as the "geo-strategic map".
  • A certain gap between means and ambitions: this discrepancy makes it increasingly difficult for France to act purely alone, especially at a time when it appears more isolated in Europe and less connected to the United States than before.

All in all, it is France's strategic positioning that is at stake. Post-Covid and post-US elections, we are now in a new global context, marked by the intensifying US-China competition. The question is, will the Macron doctrine - or the French approach - be able to adjust? 



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