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War in Ukraine - France Needs to Reassess its Foreign Policy Options

War in Ukraine - France Needs to Reassess its Foreign Policy Options
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

France’s position on the war in Ukraine has garnered some often negative, and at times virulent, reactions from its partners and allies. Some statesmen in Poland and the Baltic states have condemned the French, but closer yet are the British commentators who have adopted a similarly disparaging approach, like Janan Ganesh’s piece in the Financial Times.

There is a whole range of these criticisms: the military aid to Ukraine is insufficient compared to that provided by the United Kingdom, Germany or even modest Latvia; dialogue between Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin is improper; declarations by the President warning of Russian humiliation and calling for negotiations inadequate. Of course, President Macron’s no show in Kiev contributes to a general malaise. 

Should we be seeing a fundamental difference in the approaches of the French compared to other Western allies', or is it merely a difference in style or method? 

In this case, we might argue for the latter. In a press release regarding the latest exchange between Macron, Putin and Scholz, Paris announced that both European leaders "emphasized to President Putin that any solution to the war must be negotiated between Moscow and Kyiv, with due respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine" and "reiterated their insistent request for a ceasefire". This is a far cry from the supposed "concessions on territory in exchange for peace" strategy typically attributed to the French - and the Germans. Furthermore, France has been one of the loudest voices in Brussels, calling for strict sanctions against Russia and a change in Europe’s energy policy. All points that refute the idea of an appeasement policy. 

Maybe the difference in method stems from a difference in perspective with Russia. We will explore such a possibility in our conclusion, after we examine the challenge posed by the war in Ukraine to France’s position in Europe, and the world on both the medium and the long term. 

French leadership in Europe

The immediate effect of the Russian aggression was the reorganization of the internal balance of power in Europe. Indeed, for many European states, including France, threats from the East were minimal compared to threats from the South. Today, there is no question that the East-borne threat is coming back to the fore. In that sense, defense of Europe - implying NATO - is also coming back in front of mind compared to European defense. Poland, who had been a black sheep in the region since it started flouting the rule of law, has gained preponderance as the frontline state in the war. In contrast, the Franco-German duo has been perceived as naïve, if not weak, in dealing with Moscow, though such an amalgamation of these two positions remains an oversimplification. 

As the war reopens the door for enlargement negotiations, the problem with European institutions arises once again. It has become impossible to refuse Kiev’s request for entry, making it also more difficult to deny Moldova and some Balkan states’ requests. Once again, this evolution puts France in an uncomfortable position. As one of the most reluctant nations in the enlargement project of the Union, France has always staked new membership in a redefinition, a "deepening", of the institutional ecosystem of the EU. As such, many are quick to suspect that France will find just about any reason to block new members. We saw an example of this just last month with the wave of negative responses to Macron’s May 9th speech in Strasbourg on the "European political community".

Ultimately, the reelection of Emmanuel Macron for a second term and the difficult formation of a new coalition in Berlin should have empowered France’s natural leadership role in Europe, yet it did nothing of the sort. Nowadays, Poland, the Balkans and some Nordic states define the defense strategy in Europe, and drive relations with Russia, with the support of the United Kingdom. 

The reelection of Emmanuel Macron for a second term and the difficult formation of a new coalition in Berlin should have empowered France’s natural leadership role in Europe, yet it did nothing of the sort.

So, does this represent the end of the line for French influence? We think not, as long as Paris finds its voice again. In Guerre en Ukraine: nouvelle politique étrangère pour la France published by Institut Montaigne on June 8th, we propose three paths back to a leadership role for France. First of all, President Macron could assuage his partners' fears by using a decidedly unambiguous language on Russia and on the primordial importance of NATO. A visit to Ukraine, and perhaps specifically to Odessa, would be a strong gesture of solidarity and a show of support for Ukraine's membership application to the EU. This way, the whirring of accusations might finally quiet down, too. What is more, this "European political community" should be seen as welcoming to new entrants, not as hindering them. 

Once any confusion about where France’s stance has been clarified to her partners, the nation will naturally regain a strong negotiating position. The French could leverage their approval of Ukraine’s entry into the Union to advance its own priorities: a strengthened euro zone, the primacy of the rule of law, a nuclear-friendly energy policy as well as their "resilience agenda" or "strategic sovereignty" plan, to name a few. In other words, France could turn the tide in this seemingly weakening moment for her position in Europe, and make this setback an opportunity for growth. 

Finally, it has become clear that the European states will have to bet big on a defense upgrade. The French might get satisfaction in their project to build a European defense if France can successfully show that the EU can contribute to funding national defense efforts, in conjunction with NATO. This is also the only way that a European defense industry could see the light. 

Western leadership on the global stage

As we have just explained, the war impacted France’s leadership role within Europe. We might also want to point out that Western leadership in general is challenged on the international scene. The developing world, even as it condemns the Russian aggression, is evidently not ready to follow in Western footsteps in isolating and weakening Russia. The worldview which opposes democracies against authoritarianism clashes with the more widely accepted opposition of the West against the rest of the world. The Russian narrative widely spread around the globe, this idea that Vladimir Putin was forced to attack Ukraine in a preemptive defense of his country.

France has always been careful in remaining open to the Global South. It is at the core of its strategy to promote multilateralism. How can it contribute to this project in this context? The aforementioned note published by Institut Montaigne on June 8th 2022 identifies three perspectives.

First, we must wage a narrative battle. Europeans have been careful to limit the economic and social consequences of war in the Global South, especially regarding the alarming food crisis, and rightly so. In that regard, they have attempted to restore wheat supplies to those that depend on Ukraine and Russia for most of their imports. It would not be illegitimate to expect the beneficiaries of these trade efforts to condemn the Russian aggression and its consequences (rather than blaming the United States and their allies). It is also up to them to pressure Putin into reopening Odessa’s export routes. Furthermore, because he was always willing to extend a hand to Russia, Macron can take this opportunity to speak truth to countries of the Global South.

France has always been careful in remaining open to the Global South. It is at the core of its strategy to promote multilateralism. How can it contribute to this project in this context?

Next, we should reorient our approach to global governance. The developing world is anxious to see a changing globalization, especially with the application of war-related sanctions. Their worries are legitimate. Within the G7 and other global forums, France could push to enact Russian sanctions with a clear objective: to push the narrative that the West is promoting global stability, despite Russians and Chinese claims. 

Finally, we should work to rearrange Western alliances. To preserve its role on the world scene, France needs to remain active in Africa, in the Middle East and in the Indo-Pacific. It is in France’s interest that Europe take on a more important geopolitical role. In the current context however, in the wake of the war, Europeans are at a risk of folding inwards, focusing only on problems arising on the continent, reducing their scope. To avoid this type of downgrade, renewed efforts to construct a European defense could allow for fruitful strategic discussions with Washington on the distribution of global responsibilities between Europeans and Americans, in tandem with their allies in the Pacific.

France, Europe and Russia

Back to where we started: underneath the relatively superficial disagreements between France and its allies, could there lie a deeper divergence of opinions on the future of Russian relations? Isn’t that not what makes a "Franco-German" approach so different from the Anglo-Saxon way, which Central and Nordic Europe share too? 

The reason why we should be careful about not humiliating Russia, according to Macron in an interview with French regional press on June 2nd, is that "when fighting finally stops, we need to be able to build an exit route through diplomacy". 

It is becoming clear that although there is much talk about end goals within the European countries, this type of debate is somewhat futile as long as power dynamics still evolve on the ground. Either way, it is less important to know if it would be preferable to run Russian forces out of Crimea, or let them have the Donbas to spare them the humiliation because only time will tell what outcome is available to us. It is however very important that the great capitals of the Western world seriously consider the "day after" the conflict. The most plausible outcome is that Russia will come out weakened but vengeful, more aggressive and even more dependent on China. Ukraine and Europe would generally remain vulnerable to renewed attacks or at the very least destabilization attempts. This is why we need to be prepared for prolonged tensions, an atmosphere of confrontation and a relationship of antagonism, in Europe and elsewhere. Will there even be room for diplomacy then? 

In a way, the answer to this question is yes. We will have to maintain channels for communication open and show that we can be both reasonable and transparent to avoid miscalculations on either side. But if we are thinking of a grand bargain, the answer is no. There can be no grand negotiations on the new "security architecture of Europe" which had long been the goal of French diplomacy. For credibility reasons, French leaders need to prove to the world that they got the memo: move on. 



Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / AFP

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