Geopolitics on the rocks

Pascal Gauchon

Where is France headed?


France's three main presidential candidates sport different worldviews. Marine Le Pen is a hardline nationalist, François Fillon a moderate gaullist, while Macron is running as the last globalist. Still, whoever wins will have to deal with France's insurmountable geopolitical constraints; above all a persistent economic weakness.

Ever since de Gaulle, French foreign policy had been characterised by participation in the Atlantic Alliance and a refusal to fully integrate with NATO, a way of informing the United States that we were “allies but not aligned” to quote Hubert Védrine. This choice was supported by France’s attachment to its independence, guaranteed by its nuclear weapons as well as a certain distance from plans for the European project in which France hoped to preserve its original, if not predominant role, without integrating totally. In addition to its role as the moral leader of countries to its south, France also assumed the role of being the intermediary between Russia and the United States, as well as between Arab countries and Israel, and as the protector of African nations – which served its moral claims as well as its interests.

The end of Gaullist geopolitics

France has had to add water to its Gaullist wine. This evolution developed over a number of decades and little by little the country integrated with the European Union, lost its role as leader to the advantage of Germany, reassessed the issue of “Françafrique” for moral reasons, distanced itself from Arab countries and above all aligned itself with the United States.

The decisive turning point was, without any doubt whatsoever, France’s reintegration in NATO in 2008. Dominique de Villepin’s speech against the war in Iraq made to the United Nations was, without doubt, the last strong expression of Gaullist geopolitics. As if frightened by its own audacity, France then got back into line and its foreign policy became unremarkable. There is no doubt that a certain tendency for originality remains, as seen in Nicolas Sarkozy’s mediation at the time of the war in Georgia and when searching for a solution in Ukraine. One sees this more clearly in operations in Africa against Islamists movements, with France careful to get the green light from local governments and international institutions in order to not revive criticism against Françafrique.

The question that now arises is: will the current tendency continue should the new president mark an even partial return to previous policies?

Although presidential elections usually mark a stalemate as far as foreign policy is concerned, this campaign will instead have to give it great importance due to the many problems candidates will not be able to ignore, such as Brexit, problems faced by the European Union, the election of Donald Trump, protectionist tension and migration flows. The opinions they will express as far as globalisation is concerned will be at the heart of their agendas.

Choice of candidates

Of course, everything will depend on who is elected president. There are currently three candidates in top positions; Marine Le Pen, François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron. At the time of writing, all configurations are possible for the second ballot; Le Pen/Fillon, Macron/Fillon or Le Pen/Macron. Polls indicate that Marine Le Pen would be roundly beaten by her two rivals, but the populist wave affecting Western nations advises greater prudence.

It is she who wants to cause the most serious rift. Her agenda will be the reinstatement of borders, supported by Trump’s commitments. This will result in France leaving the Eurozone, negotiated with her partners, and even leaving the European Union should it prove impossible to reach an agreement. Under Le Pen, France would make every effort to resume its role as the intermediary between Trump’s United States and Putin’s Russia, encouraging a rapprochement between the two leaders. France might even take the initiative of quickly recognising Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Like Trump and Putin, Le Pen will make the battle against Islamism a priority. She has also set her heart on establishing an American-Russian-French axis. She will certainly also try and preserve France’s positions in Africa, which her unwavering opposition to immigration will render complex, as well as increasing the country’s defence budget.

François Fillon, close to Philippe Séguin, supported all the above during his campaign against the Maastricht Treaty. He continues to align himself with Gaullism as well as a rapprochement with Putin whom he knows and likes. He reproaches François Hollande for having deferred to Angela Merkel. He has assumed a position in favour of “realpolitik” as far as Syria is concerned. All this leads one to believe that, like Marine Le Pen, he would break away from the Atlanticist, Europeanist and humanitarian inclinations that have characterised France’s foreign policy under Sarkozy and Hollande.

However, despite his stiff and determined appearance, he is a flexible man who has evolved greatly. He has abandoned the Séguinism of his youth and now supports the euro. As prime minister, he successfully managed France’s reintegration into NATO. After assuming a position in favour of Damascus, he retracted and called Assad a “dictator” he did not wish to “support”. He believes that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is “illegal”. The support he receives from big business prevents him from assuming a radical position as far as the reestablishment of borders is concerned.

Trump’s election to president of the United States is a problem for him, as it is for most politicians, because he is and wants to be unpredictable. Even if Fillon were ready to reach an agreement with Russia regards to the Islamist threat, he worries about the doubts raised concerning NATO. He therefore travelled to Berlin to obtain Merkel’s approval for a “European defence alliance”, which, in his opinion, would not include France’s nuclear weapons. His is in a complex position; he has said that NATO is “necessary”, although he believes it should be reformed. At the same time he considers a “European defence alliance” indispensable only in the event NATO should be dismantled. Everything will therefore depend on Trump’s attitude, as well as Merkel’s in the event Germany should accept change and increase military expenditure.

Such positions will be confirmed if Bruno Le Maire becomes foreign minister. The former director of Dominique de Villepin’s cabinet is a pro-European greatly committed to the Franco-German relationship.

Then there is Emmanuel Macron. He has not yet published his programme and has not addressed in depth issues of international politics. He travelled to Lebanon at the end of January and managed not to announce anything specific. His most significant move was a visit to Berlin on January 10th, 2017, when he expressed great praise for Angela Merkel and her policy regarding migrants. In a speech made (in English) at Humboldt University he said, “We are all Berliners, we are all Europeans” and described his party en marche as the “only pro-European political force” in France. He also pleaded for the Schengen Agreement to be strengthened and for the creation of a permanent European Headquarters to address military matters – specifying that this would take place in agreement with NATO.

This fuels the fears of those who consider him excessively Atlanticist. The geopolitical analyst Pascal Boniface reported on Twitter that neo-conservatives had returned to support him – men such as Bruno Tertrais or François Heisbourg. Agreement expressed by Kouchner, a former foreign minister very close to the neo-conservatives, confirms Boniface’s concern. Of the three candidates, Macron is the most likely to continue current foreign policy. He is also the most globalist of all the candidates.

Geopolitics under constraints

What men want is one thing, what they can do is another. The fact remains that French geopolitics are subject to an entire series of constraints hard for the country to free itself of.

The first is France’s economic weakness and the balance of power is to Germany’s advantage. This explains why François Hollande has only been able to superficially soften his austere homologue, Angela Merkel. It is unlikely that matters will be resolved over the medium term; the burden of debt increases as interest rates rise. Tremonti’s brilliant formula remains more valid than ever; “The Franco-German couple cannot last because it is thus that Berlin masks its power and Paris its weakness.” Germany’s desire to increase its military expenditure should also reduce what remains France’s assets; its military power and its defence industry.

The second is its integration in Europe. France wanted it without, however, totally accepting the quid pro quo involving restrictions on its sovereignty. Since then, it has only been able to curb and delay European decisions it found displeasing. Faced with Angela Merkel’s migration policies, France was able to re-establish control over its borders (using the hypocritical excuse of the terrorist threat), accepting only a small number of the migrants that Germany redistributed to its partners. Moreover, the risk of NATO being dissolved or at least weakened will result in a strengthening of European defence, reducing any room for manoeuvre France still has also in Africa.

The third constraint is the country’s relationship with the United States. The Foreign Ministry has been profoundly reshuffled since Dominique de Villepin left. The Atlanticists, often close to the conservatives, have taken charge. In a controversial book, Vincent Jauvert denounced them calling them “the sect”. These are high-ranking civil servants playing a significant role in French foreign policy by providing the president and the foreign minister with the information, analyses and proposals they judge most pertinent.

The fact remains that these neo-conservatives are nowadays orphans. Trump’s victory took place in opposition to their American counterparts. It is expected to result in a withdrawal of the United States and a lower level of interest as far as Europe is concerned. One must add that Trump’s election has revived anti-Americanism and that this phenomenon is expected to last. This is not very advantageous for those considering the relationship with Washington as a priority.

The last of these constraints is the importance of public opinion and the dominant media. These are generally in favour of the European project, the euro and foreign policy’s moralising posture. But the majority of French citizens worry about terrorism (it is the issue that worried them most in January 2017) with a significant number fearing increased immigration. Outlining a clear political agenda seems difficult faced with these conflicting aspirations. Just as happened in the United States, it will be one of the fundamental challenges in the French election campaign; for or against borders.

In more simple terms, the choice appears to be between pure sovereignty policies (Marine Le Pen), a return to a neo-Gaullist policy (Fillon’s Franco-German partnership and a rapprochement with Russia) and Macron’s Europeanist and globalist line, less distinctly Atlanticist. However, once elected, the president will have to take into account the constraints listed. The next president will probably have to make do with “reactive pragmatism”, to quote the option used by Pascal Boniface in describing François Hollande’s diplomacy. All this is far from a radical break with the past, save for a surprise election of Marine Le Pen.

(translated by Francesca Simmons)