20 May 2022

The Geopolitical Significance of Macron’s Re-election in France

Dr. Pascal Boniface

On April 24 2022, Emmanuel Macron was elected for a second 5-year term as President of the French Republic. So, what does this mean for French (and European) international policy? According to the French Constitution, Macron cannot run again for the next election, thus he has free rein to run the diplomacy he truly wants. This second term is not dedicated to his re-election but rather to his historical legacy.

In Europe, and more broadly in the Western World, there was a strong sense of relief after Macron’s re-election. The reason is quite obvious: he was opposed to Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader, whose hostility towards the European Union, and pro-Russian tendency, has been at the center of her political DNA. Even though she softened her policy on ditching the euro single currency, one of her major pledges 5 years ago, she still considers the European Union as detrimental to French sovereignty, leaving it incapable of protecting French people from the threats and perils of globalization. Le Pen also sought to reassess the Franco-German alliance (the bedrock of the European project since its inception), pull France out of NATO’s military command, and launch a strategic rapprochement between NATO and Russia, which could be considered somewhat bizarre given Russia’s ongoing military operation in Ukraine.

Le Pen’s admiration for Putin is motivated by ideological values – he claims to defend Christian civilization against Muslims and to share similar views with Le Pen on societal matters. However, there are also psychological and economic factors at play, such as the need to have a strongman leading the country and the millions of euros Le Penn borrowed  from a Russian bank 5 years ago to fund her presidential campaign.[1] As Macron told her during a debate between the two: “When you speak to Putin, you are speaking to your banker.”[2]

It was crystal clear why Marine Le Pen’s candidacy, and possible election, was perceived as a major threat by France’s European and Western partners. She was little known beyond the Western world, but broadly considered as lacking experience on international issues. Putin was probably the only head of state (besides the far-right Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban) who had wished for Le Pen to enter the Elysée Palace. And if the French political system (two-round election) was considered a bulwark against extremist parties, there was a growing perception that Le Pen’s arrival at Elysée Palace was no longer impossible. She was Macron’s main opponent, and while disappointment with leaders is a general trend around the world, this sentiment was particularly strong in France. Macron, unlike in 2017, was no longer perceived, both in France and abroad, as a young and brilliant leader able to give a new dynamism to France, but rather was regarded as a president unable to understand the circumstances and problems of low-income citizens.

The duel between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen was a remake of the 2017 elections. Both these elections witnessed a confrontation between a pro-European, pro-globalization candidate, who saw opening to the world as an opportunity for France, and an anti-European, anti-globalization candidate, who considered the external world as a threat to national identity and social equity. Macron was considered as the president of the wealthy, those in favor of globalization, and Marine Le Pen as the champion of have-nots and underprivileged people.

If in 2017 Macron triggered a huge enthusiasm among European political leaders and the media (The Economist, at the time, had published on its front cover a picture of Macron walking on water, id est a man able to perform miracles[3]), this time his election was met with just a mere sense of relief. Macron’s election has not fulfilled a dream among European political leaders and commentators. It has, however, precluded the nightmare of Marine Le Pen as president.

Macron did not meet Europe’s expectations during his first term due to various difficulties. The protests of the “Yellow Vests” and the perception that he was the president of the wealthy[4] presented him with major challenges, as did international issues related to Trump’s policies, Brexit, and then the Covid-19 crisis. What can we expect from his second term? Clearly, the strategic landscape seems in no way to favor his ambitions. Most of the current international tendencies are not compatible with traditional French diplomatic ambitions and perspectives.

The Russian aggression in Ukraine, a clear violation of international law, rules out any possibility of a French-Russian partnership or cooperation in the coming years, at least not while Putin is in charge. And no one can bet on the possibility of a regime change in Moscow any time soon. Putin could still be in power at the end of Macron’s second term. Unfortunately, since De Gaulle and the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, playing with Moscow on the geopolitical field has been a main feature of French international policy. During the Second World War, De Gaulle was often at odds with Churchill and Roosevelt. Thus, Moscow served as a counterweight, enabling De Gaulle to enhance his capacity of action. According to De Gaulle, the future of Europe was contingent on the entente between Russia[5] and France. After De Gaulle, every French president, and first and foremost François Mitterrand, who was a fierce De Gaulle opponent, followed the same line, with their own personality.

France’s priority was independence, and US protection at times felt a bit oppressive. As a Western country not aligned with Washington, and as a non-communist country enjoying good relations with Moscow, France had a specific diplomacy with no equivalent, allowing her to punch above her weight. Due to its nuclear deterrence, France was less dependent on the US nuclear umbrella and less fearful of Moscow, and saw its relationship with Moscow as a way to reinforce its room of maneuver.

However, this is no longer the case. Relations between Russia and the West have been going downhill for the past 15 years. In 2007, Putin criticized the West’s strive for world domination. The war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, NATO’s military intervention in Libya in 2011 and the killing of Khadafi, a partner of Moscow, and Moscow’s support of the Bashar Al Assad regime during the Syrian civil war only added fuel to the fire. The overthrow of the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych and the annexation of Crimea further worsened the situation. But a dialogue was still possible between Paris and Moscow. Nowadays, it is impossible. Relations have been frozen for a while now and Paris has lost some freedom of movement.

In November 2019, Macron declared that NATO was brain-dead.[6] His goal, when elected for his first term, was to push for European strategic autonomy and make Europe less dependent on Washington. Thanks to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine, NATO has never been so strong and united. Every European country is now certain that, as far as security is concerned, NATO is the only game in town and the only one that can deter a potential Russian aggression. US strategic credibility, which was at stake after the Kabul disaster, has never been so robust. US President Biden, by stating that Washington will not send US troops to protect Ukraine, has sparked interest in NATO membership – Finland and Sweden are considering departing from their neutrality to join the alliance. Therefore, pleading again for European autonomy would be considered a foolish idea for European partners. It is the French project of European strategic sovereignty which is brain-dead. It will take a very long time to resume normal relations with Moscow. Europe is once again divided.

It is quite ironic, actually. So far, Russia’s military performance has shown that its army is far from being an overwhelming threat. Unable to defeat the Ukrainian army, it is hard to imagine that the Russian army would be able to achieve victory against a NATO country. Nevertheless, European countries have increased their military defense spending since Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, while seeking protection by Washington.

On the Sahel front, we could hesitate between ‘failure’ or ‘stalemate’ to describe the actual situation. But ‘success’ is far from the reality of the situation. The link between France and Mali is broken and victory against terrorism is not in sight. In 2013, just after the French intervention, which prevented jihadist groups from reaching Bamako, France and President Hollande were acclaimed in Mali.[7] However, they are now accused of being neocolonialists and are no longer welcome.[8]

In general, the situation is gloomy for France in Africa. Not only is Paris no longer Africa‘s cop, but its prestige has also deteriorated. The rise of the far right in France is part of the explanation, but so is France’s will to maintain relations with authoritarian French-speaking regimes (Togo, Chad, Cameroon, Congo-Brazzaville, Gabon), most of them inefficient and unpopular, as well as its will to establish links with the civil society and the young generation of students – two contradictory goals. France is perceived by the youth as a protector of corrupted regimes, incapable of developing their country and society, and only interested in protecting their own interests.[9]

The situation in the Middle East is also problematic. Lebanon is in big trouble and Macron does not have a magic wand to fix the problem. He challenged the political elite of the country, blaming them for the disaster the country was facing. But this elite is still in charge. Internal difficulties in Algeria (the Hirak mass protest movement) too have had a negative impact on French-Algerian relations. Paris has also given up on its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as has the whole international community. Thus, Paris has lost the prestige it once had as the proud advocate of noble causes. Fortunately for Macron, relations between France and the United Arab Emirates, and to a lesser extent with Saudi Arabia, are at their peak, with intense cooperation on the economic, cultural and military fronts.

There could, however, be some hope for Macron if he can manage to make some positive contributions. So, what can he do? The first file would be the fight against climate change. France has strong arguments having hosted the COP21 summit in 2015, which successfully culminated in the signing of the Paris Agreement on climate change (for the first time in history, all countries were united under a common cause). Green issues are of particular importance, specifically among the younger populations, hence this would be a prime opportunity for Macron to take the lead in this mission.

The defense and promotion of multilateralism is another important area of focus for Macron. The crisis of multilateralism has been at the centre of some of the most critical strategic issues facing the world today. France is in a fortunate position to launch a campaign in an effort to create a united front in defense of multilateralism. Though France has sufficient power to exert influence in global affairs, it does not have enough to act unilaterally.

And last but not least, France could be a key player, along with other European actors such as Germany, in preventing a possible escalation between the Western world and Russia, thereby precluding a global confrontation between an authoritarian axis and a coalition of democracies. After more than 30 years since the end of the Cold war, between the US and China, France must strive to prevent a new division of the world and make this a strategic priority.

But the main challenge for Macron is to enhance, and even restore, France’s international soft power. His ability to reinforce France’s international influence, therefore, might lie on domestic issues. Due to the rise of the far-right movement, many internal political debates are focused on refugees and migrants, which are deemed as a threat. The same could be said about Islam and Muslims. Many political leaders and commentators seem to be obsessed by Islam. The proposal to ban the veil in universities, and even public spaces, is not only contrary to the true definition of the French concept of Laïcité[10] (which gives everyone the freedom to believe in what they want to believe in), but is also a subject that incites a great deal of consternation around the world.

France, which once portrayed the image of being active in the promotion of human rights, is now perceived as hostile to religious minorities, specifically the Muslim community. France, which at the beginning of this century was the most popular Western nation in the world, is now one of the most unpopular, not only in Muslim countries but also in Western ones that are more progressive on religious issues. In a globalized world, the national debates taking place within a country are monitored and scrutinized by the outside word.

References 

[1] Romain Geoffroy and Maxime Vaudano, “What Are Marine Le Pen’s Ties to Vladimir Putin’s Russia?” Le Monde, April 21, 2022, https://www.lemonde.fr/en/les-decodeurs/article/2022/04/21/what-are-marine-le-pen-s-ties-to-vladimir-putin-s-russia_5981192_8.html.

[2] John Timsit, “Débat Macron-Le Pen : «Vous parlez à votre banquier quand vous parlez de la Russie», lance le président-candidat à sa concurrente” Le Figaro, April 20, 2022, https://www.lefigaro.fr/elections/presidentielles/debat-macron-le-pen-vous-parlez-a-votre-banquier-quand-vous-parlez-de-la-russie-lance-le-president-candidat-a-sa-concurrente-20220420.

[3] “Electoral Victory Will Make France’s President a Potent Force,” The Economist, June 17, 2017, https://www.economist.com/leaders/2017/06/17/electoral-victory-will-make-frances-president-a-potent-force.

[4] He suppressed the symbolic wealth tax and made many comments perceived as scornful by low-income citizens.

[5] Most of the time, De Gaulle used the term Russia instead of Soviet Union or USSR, favoring the geographical definition over the political one and setting aside the fact that it was a communist regime.

[6] “Emmanuel Macron Warns Europe: NATO is Becoming Brain-Dead,” The Economist, November 7, 2019, https://www.economist.com/europe/2019/11/07/emmanuel-macron-warns-europe-nato-is-becoming-brain-dead.

[7] “French President Hollande Gets Warm Welcome in Bamako,” DW, February 2, 2013, https://www.dw.com/en/french-president-hollande-gets-warm-welcome-in-bamako/a-16572171.

[8] Paul Melly, “Why France Faces So Much Anger in West Africa,” BBC News, December 5, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59517501.

[9] Olivier Caslin, “En Afrique, un sentiment anti-français bien ancré,“ Jeune Afrique, December 18, 2020, https://www.jeuneafrique.com/1092996/politique/en-afrique-un-sentiment-anti-francais-bien-ancre/.

[10] According to Laïcité, there is no official religion in France (though Catholicism used to be the official religion). The state is neutral regarding religion. Every citizen is free to choose one or none.

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