President Macron and Defense: En Même Temps


By Robbin Laird

During my visit to France in the Fall of 2021, I had a chance to talk with my old friend and colleague, Jean-Louis Gergorin. Jean-Louis is a noted European strategist with many years of experience both in government and in the private sector. We first met in September 1980 when he was Director of Policy Planning in the French Foreign Ministry.

As I am in throes of finishing my reader of French defense policy under President Macron, I discussed with him how to understand and characterize this period of French history. We started by discussing the intellectual influences on Macron which shaped his policy framework. We then discussed his effective use of symbolism in placing France within the evolving strategic context. And finally, we discussed the various aspects of his policy initiatives which make up his legacy to date.

The Intellectual Framework

According to Gergorin, the intellectual framework for Macron is within European social democracy. “He was always convinced that the French economy has to be free market oriented.” But he had two significant left-wing influences.

The first was the socialist Michel Rocard. As Gergorin put it: “Rocard was in favor of a free market but wanted to adjust it so that greater equality of opportunity could be created.” Rocard is deceased so his influence is in terms of legacy, not current influence.

The second is a politician still rather influential, namely, Jean-Pierre Chevènement. As JLG underscored: “Chevènement is a socialist Gaullist. He is very much attached to national independence, is rather euro skeptical, and very much tempted to come back to some policy of balance between the West and the Russians. Indeed, this idea that it is possible to balance French Western alliances with a special dialogue with Russia is central to Macron’s thinking. But at the same time, Macron believes as have most French leaders in the Fifth Republic, that France’s relationship with Germany is very essential.”

We then discussed the Macron style as Gergorin sees it. “He often talks in terms of contradictory initiatives which have to be pursued at the same time.

“He likes to propose two contradictory policies, and say, “We should pursue both simultaneously. He does so in his speeches by using the French phrase “en même temps.”

In his 2017 campaign, he was the only strongly pro-European candidate. He started from the outset in terms of arguing for an expanded European agenda, including in defense and security policy.

Symbolism and Policy

Macron has been very sensitive to the use of symbolism in his Presidency to set in motion his policy agenda. A key example is hosting Putin at Versailles prior to the 2017 G-7 meeting. Russia had been tossed out of the G-8 thereby making it the G-7. Despite that, Macron hosted Putin prior to the meeting and notably at Versailles.

Gergorin outlined why Versailles was so important as a symbol for Putin. In short, when Peter the Great visited Europe in the time of Louis XIV, the king refused to host him at Versailles. When his successor was king, the regent convinced him to host Peter the Great at Versailles, in part because Russia had defeated Poland and Sweden and had become the dominant Eastern power. Versailles denied then granted to Peter the Great and the red carpet to come to Versailles for the man who sees himself in the tradition of great Russian leaders was not missed by Putin.

The Russian leaders have been preoccupied throughout Russian history for recognition by Western leaders as an equal power. The conscious effort by Macron to bring Putin to Versailles was a clear statement by him that he recognized Russia as an equal partner, but as Gergorin put it: “Whatever that would then mean in concrete terms.”

French First Lady Brigitte Macron, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. President Donald J. Trump, and First Lady Melania Trump walk through a colors cordon during the commemoration ceremony of the 75th anniversary of D-Day at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial, June 6, 2019.06.06.2019 Photo by Master Sgt. Andy Kin Regional Media Center AFN Europe

At the same time, the invitation to President Trump to come to the Bastille Day Parade in 2017. Trump was very appreciative of the opportunity and was a contributor to how Macron would work with Trump. Indeed, Trump was very helpful to Macron as the rhetoric used by Trump with regard to Europeans was useful to the European sovereignty agenda of Macron. At the same time, the practical efforts to shore up European defense provided significant opportunities for Macron to increase collaboration between American and French forces worldwide.

Policies Pursued by Macron

Symbolism aside, Macron has been very blunt with Putin over the years. Notably, there is increasing pressure on Russia with regard to cyber issues. According to Gergorin, “a hot line has been created between Moscow and Paris on such issues, but of limited success to date. There is a cyber security group which has been created of top officials which meets every year since it was established in 2018. The good news is that it has been useful for a better understanding on the cyber security policies of the two countries. The disappointing news is that neither the dissemination of malware in French infrastructures nor the continuous rise of ransomware attacks by Russian speaking groups has yet been impacted by this dialogue.”

But Macron understands that with Russia, what counts is the balance of power. According to Gergorin, “To do so, he has basically tried to accelerate European defense integration, to build the famous European pillar of NATO, not against NATO, but to build a strong European pillar, all the more because of the worries about America being less committed, which started with Obama, confirmed in a different manner from Trump, and but now with Biden.”

Gergorin also noted that “President Macron has committed his Administration to defense spending, and has focused on regular growth of the defense budget.”

Macron in his 2017 Sorbonne speech called for an accelerated effort to build enhanced European defense capabilities and sovereignty. But progress has been slow on this front but doing so is a key agenda item for Macron’s defense agenda. With the Biden Administration Blitzkrieg withdrawal strategy, and the collapse of the Australian submarine deal, caused in part by the Americans, this key element of Macron’s strategy is clearly reinforced. Whether it will meet with more success going forward is an open question.

The legal and political constraints on German defense are a key barrier seen from the French side. Gergorin mentioned the example of cyber defense. He underscored that “the legal limitations on German defense policy with regard to cyber-attacks are real and problematic. The position is that Germany can retaliate legally only if these attacks are above the threshold of open aggression as defined by NATO. But because all cyber attacks have been so far below this threshold (e.g. ransomware attacks), this means Germany will never complement resiliency by selective retaliation to have a deterrence component in its policy.”

This German position on cyber responses to intrusions may induce France to work with other Western partners to achieve anything realistic.

But he concluded: “In spite of the challenges, the relationship with Germany is better under Macron than before. And President Macron was extremely effective in convincing the Germans that it was necessary to take all necessary measures to support European nations to face the impact of the pandemic.”

And with regard to working with other allies, France under Macron has very active within NATO and working within the NATO Commands. Both at the NATO Transformation Command, in Norfolk, VA., headed by a French officer or at the NATO Joint Forces Command also in Norfolk, the French are heavily involved. They have expanded their engagement in defense efforts in Northern Europe and have spearheaded major efforts in fighting terrorism in North Africa. French special forces have worked closely with American ones in terms of supporting the Kurds in Syria and have engaged in military training assistance in Iraq.

What then is the legacy to date of Macron in defense?

My own view is that it Macron’s first term or perhaps only term is characterized by transition. The authoritarians are changing, the Americans are changing, and Europe is in significant flux.

What then is France’s role?

It cannot be settled in a world in strategic upheaval, and that is why in part Macron’s formula “en même temps” makes a great deal of sense for France.

The featured photo: During the Putin visit to Versailles, the two Presidents are seen at their podiums with paintings highlighting Charles VII’s entrance intoNapes in 1495 and the battle of Fleurus in June 26,1794. Credit: AFP