French President Emmanuel Macron’s astonishingly fast rise to the top means it’s still hard to know how he will govern on many issues. With a background in finance and economics, many assume his focus will be on domestic policy; after all, the new French president has essentially no record on national security issues.
Early indications are, however, the opposite -- that Macron will be more than engaged on the foreign policy front. Despite all the talk of multilateralism during his campaign, Macron looks to be a hawk, willing to use France’s military power and political clout on the world stage.
Macron has signaled that he will leave most of the early steps of his domestic reform to his cabinet, led by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. Meanwhile, he has shown great interest in the presidency’s foreign policy mandate, particularly with regard to the military and the fight against terrorism.
With its historic links to the Middle East, Islamic State group attacks on its homeland, and the large numbers of French fighters in IS, France is perhaps second only to the United States in countries vested in the fight against Islamic terrorism. More broadly, France remains an important player on the geopolitical stage, one of very few countries with a blue-water navy, a nuclear deterrent and a military presence on every continent (something which is not true of, say, China or Russia).
During the campaign, the pro-EU Macron struck a multilateralist note, calling for joint European defense. “We must bring forth a strategic autonomy at the European level,” he said at the time. Many of his campaign promises, such as reaching NATO’s 2 percent of gross domestic product threshold on defense spending, or creating a new cyber command, were either consensus views or policies that were already in the planning stage. But in his actions since, it’s clear that Macron wants France in a leadership position.
It’s also clear he relishes his role as commander-in-chief. His inauguration ceremony struck military tones unusual even for France. He returned the French ministry of defense to its Charles de Gaulle-era name -- Ministere des Armees (“Ministry of the Armies”) -- a move weighted with symbolism. He has gone on multiple visits to wounded veterans and French military bases overseas. He surely remembers from his time working at the Elysee under Francois Hollande how the latter’s hawkish military moves were the only aspect of his Presidency that was enduringly popular with the French public. With uniformed and armed military daily patrolling the streets of France in a show of force against terrorism, security issues are foremost on the minds of many French voters.
Macron is smart enough to realize that EU-level defense policy has always been a chimera, and that military action requires unilateral action, or ad hoc partnerships rather than transnational alliances, as has been the case for France’s actions in the Sahel region in Africa, where the French military is spearheading the fight against al-Qaida-affiliated insurgents in countries like Chad and Mali. What’s more, the erratic policy under Donald Trump means that “Europeans must learn to live with the fact that, in the long term, Washington will be less inclined to care about the security of our continent,” as Macron put it on the campaign trail.
In office, therefore, Macron has given many more signals that he intends to be a hawkish commander-in-chief, and one that will act first and seek alliances later. Alongside trade, the first item on the agenda of his first bilateral summit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was strengthened defense and nuclear cooperation, a move that reflects France’s strategic ambitions in the Pacific (where it has a significant presence through its overseas territories) rather than its NATO or EU commitments.
But the most telling sign came in a little-noticed moment during his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin after their first meeting. Asked about the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Macron responded, “there is a very clear red line on our side,” a blatant dig at Barack Obama’s refusal to enforce that red line. What’s more, he added, “any use of chemical weapons will be met with reprisals and a counterstrike, at least from the French.”
The message wasn’t just intended for Moscow and Damascus, but for Washington, Brussels and Berlin as well: France will act when it must, alone if it must.
By Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry
Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry is a Paris-based writer and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. -- Ed.