By Stefano Polimeni
The first months of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency show an evident shift in French foreign and defence policy intentions. Before the election, the critics underlined his insufficient experience with respect to geopolitics and international affairs, considering him a typical bureaucrat focused only on the economic aspects of his political program. However, in the first weeks after the election, Macron has demonstrated a proactive approach in foreign policy, in particular during the NATO Summit, the G7 and the meetings with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.
The President’s objectives concerning the role of France in the world touch upon several critical dossiers that Macron seems to deal with in a different way, at least in comparison to the two predecessors, Hollande and Sarkozy. The President is aware of the fact that the protection of the national geopolitical interests needs a comprehensive strategic review of the French defence and security sector. After Brexit, the purpose is to promote the complex revision of the defence system, but with a more EU oriented approach. The French activism during the European Council meetings is quite evident, looking at its crucial role in the launch of the European Defence Fund, as a sign of the commitment in supporting defence research and cooperation across the EU. Although in the last weeks there have been important tensions with General De Villiers – Chief of Staff of the French Defence – that has announced his resignations (19th July) because of the cuts needed in 2017 to align the public account with the 3% objective of deficit/GDP ratio, currently France remains politically involved in moving towards the NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP by 2025. On this topic, France is closer to the US than to Germany: Angela Merkel and the social democratic allies are both more reluctant in answering to the US requests for more military spending, as agreed during the NATO Summit in 2014.
In this context, we can say that Macron is trying to take advantage from Brexit, by putting all his efforts into making France the first European power with a significant nuclear arsenal and as potential guide of a European Defence Policy that, in the last months, has appeared to accelerate towards more integration. In this broad scheme, Macron needs to strengthen ties with Washington for geopolitical and strategic reasons, by presenting himself as the unique European reliable partner that is willing to build a strong relationship of trust with Trump administration. While in the Sahel region France is continuing to reinforce its counter terrorism and anti-smuggling initiatives re-launching also the G5-Sahel, in other regions, from the Mediterranean and North Africa to Syria and Middle East, it is essential to obtain the political support of the US. This is what Macron is working on with the several bilateral meetings occurred with Trump (during NATO Summit, G7, G20, 14th July anniversary). On Syria, France is the main European actor that is trying to play a part between US and Russia, while in North Africa it is profiting from different contingencies: the business and political relationships with Al-Sisi in Egypt are stronger after the deterioration of Italy-Egypt diplomatic relations following the tragic death of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni; in Libya France does not hide its ambition to support the figure and the role of the eastern militia commander Khalifa Haftar at the expense of the UN recognised Libyan Government guided by Al-Seraj.
Overall, President Macron is taking all the opportunities to shape a new French foreign policy paradigm, based on the exploitation of the unstable international scenario and on the reinforcement of the strategic relations with the essential ally, the US. It could not be so unrealistic to think that Macron’s activism with the US is also aimed at preparing the field for a potential entering of France into the “Five-Eyes” – the intelligence sharing agreement between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, UK and US. However, for this prospect, France would need to complete the security and defence sector review and to appear as a fully reliable partner, especially in the intelligence field where the structural and organizational deficiencies following the Sarkozy reform (2008) could represent the main obstacle to this challenging ambition.