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Tracing French Diplomacy: A New International Strategy for France

Tracing French Diplomacy: A New International Strategy for France
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

According to our “brief history” of Macron’s diplomacy, France is mostly concerned by its strategic positioning - or, as it’s understood nowadays, the “narrative” of its foreign policy.

In my recently published book "France dans le bouleversement du monde" (France in the midst of global upheaval), I suggest 3 parameters through which France’s future foreign policy options should be re-examined. 

The post-Covid strategic context

A new global paradigm could come to characterize the 2020s, summarized by the following:

  • The increasingly fierce competition for power between China and Russia on the one hand, and the United States and its allies on the other.
  • The importance of technology as a tool to win this battle.
  • The prevalence of global challenges, particularly climate change and biodiversity.

This global paradigm will translate differently depending on the continent or the major strategic areas. From a French perspective, it sheds a new light on the transatlantic relationship:

  • The greatest fear in France is that the Americans will turn away from crisis areas that are vital to European security (such as the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the Balkans), while demanding the alignment of NATO, and therefore Europe, in their confrontation with China. According to a common view, Americans will continue to prove their unreliability, as they did in Kabul and with AUKUS, and they might drag Europe into a confrontation with China which is not in Europe’s interest. 
  • This explains the attitudes of a significant part of the political class, as demonstrated by the return of the "leaving NATO" theme in the current French pre-election debate.
  • It would be more rational to realize that if Europeans stayed at equidistance between the US and China, it would weaken the US security guarantees over any potential Russian attack on Europe. This argument is difficult to get across to the French, who hardly perceive Russia as a strategic threat. It will therefore take courage for French decision-makers to argue in favor of a revitalized transatlantic relationship - with no guarantee that they will not face the known rigidity of American leaders.

The two other factors of the "2020s paradigm" lead to the following imperatives: the need to strengthen Europe, so that a country like France is able to remain in the technological race, and the continued need to seek consensus, including with China and the Southern hemisphere, on global challenges. The pandemic has given us a stark warning of just how serious future climate and other crises will be.

France’s true weight in the world

The theory of inevitable decline, be it economic, demographic, or technological, must be put into perspective. 

The theory of inevitable decline, be it economic, demographic, or technological, must be put into perspective. France’s deep-rooted sense of its own weakening is largely the result of a more competitive world and new economic heavyweights (such as India, which has pushed France down a notch in the top 10 countries with the highest GDPs). 

It is also due to the resurgence of "carnivorous" geostrategic actors such as Russia, Turkey, Iran and, of course, China (which belongs to the two categories). 

However, the French cannot afford to lose their grip on the key elements where their global power depends the most on:

  • The permanent seat at the Security Council and nuclear weapons will remain vital assets only if France continues to rank among the ten strongest military powers, and if the country remains a first-rate economy.
  • Economically, the problem for France is not so much its GDP (now back to being in 5th place "thanks to" Covid-19 and Brexit), as is the loss of dynamism in the French model. In addition to this, there is the compounded risk of completely falling behind Germany while at the same time continuing to lose ground in the innovation race. The absence of a French-produced Covid vaccine is considered highly worrying by the French public; 
  • In terms of soft power, the battery has been running low for a few years now. France fares poorly in university and other educational rankings. It also doesn’t do well in the training of foreign students (unlike in the United Kingdom and Germany). Finally, successive French governments have reduced funding to their diplomatic and cultural networks abroad, while the "carnivorous powers" have been doing the exact opposite. 

Perhaps more profoundly, in the winter of 2011-2012, the foundations of French political culture - secularism, the integration of foreigners, freedom of expression - were simultaneously the target of violent attacks in Arab-Muslim countries, as well as in New York Times columns. There is a question that has haunted generations of French people: "Are we still a great power?" The answer is simple: "That is up to you."

There is a question that has haunted generations of French people: "Are we still a great power?"

As for the issue that stirs the younger generations on how France must update its perception of freedom in a global process of de-Occidentalization, the answer is murkier. For our part, we value the idea of working towards a "foreign policy for youth", aimed towards the youth of both Europe and the wider world.

The need for strategic choices 

The lessons of the last four years - in particular, France’s relative isolation combined with a detailed evaluation of its real weight in the world - indicate a need to make strategic decisions in four key areas: 

  • A national vs. European approach: If France is to achieve its objective of European sovereignty, it must abandon the habit of working alone. For Emmanuel Macron specifically, his ability to unite rather than impose his own preferences will be the primary challenge of the French presidency of the EU Council of the first half of 2022. This requires relegating the ongoing dialogue with Russia to the background while also seeking to sensibly deal with the potentially divisive themes of "European defense" and "strategic autonomy." A priority could be to take joint actions to stabilize crisis zones in Europe’s neighborhood (the Balkans, the Mediterranean, and Africa).
  • Burden sharing, or risk sharing, with the United States: This is a dilemma that concerns all Europeans. Should we spend more on the defense of Europe simply to allow the Americans to relocate their forces to Asia-Pacific? Or is a new role sharing conceivable, one that involves redefining responsibilities both within Europe, as well as in foreign theaters like the Middle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific? France’s natural role should be to seek different forms of cooperation with the Americans, depending on the theater, in order to rebalance the transatlantic relationship. The climate of hostility between the United Kingdom and Europe, and particularly France, is a potential disadvantage at the moment. 
  • Dilemmas vis-à-vis China: One option stands out amongst all others with respect to China. The time has come for a form of containment - economic, political, technological, military - which implies the need for close coordination between European and American strategies. However, the logic of power in which the Americans are engaged does not allow us to exclude the possibility that they eventually decide to compromise with Beijing on their economic and commercial relations, to the possible detriment of their allies’ interests. Such was the case under Trump. Is this another reason to seek close coordination with Washington? What are the chances of cooperation with China on global issues, particularly the environment? Is it realistic to try to distance Russia from Beijing? 
  • Political-military power vs. civil power: France’s military projection capability, as well as its defense industry, are important assets internationally. However, it must avoid appearing to have a foreign policy solely based on where it sells arms. The next few years will be important in reaffirming a posture of full promotion of multilateralism (such as on vaccines), promoting political solutions to crises, and defending certain principles. Most important of all is to avoid playing the "lone wolf."

The conclusion is that it is in France’s interests to escape the relative "strategic solitude" in which it finds itself. The populist part of the French political class continues to propose various alliance changes (exiting NATO or the EU, a rapprochement with Russia, equidistance with China). On the contrary however, we call for a consolidation of European unity and a renewed relationship with the United States, however difficult that may prove to be. Eventually, reconciliation with the United Kingdom will be necessary as well. 

The AUKUS affair revealed the weaknesses of France’s position. However in hindsight, it should show the Americans that discrediting their main European military ally in the Indo-Pacific was not a good idea. The French commitment to the Indo-Pacific contributes to the containment of China, and its capacity to educate the EU on the area is positive. Therefore, an effort must also come from Washington to coordinate its global strategy with that of its allies, including France, taking into account those allies’ interests and specific sensitivities. 


Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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