French President Emmanuel Macron is a bit aggravated these days. He went out of his way to court a personal relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump with the belief that chumminess would enable him to tilt American policy decisions. Between the Iran nuclear deal, steel and aluminum tariffs, the Paris Climate Accords and now the G7 debacle, Macron has learned otherwise. Social lubricant in international politics can be important, but it rarely trumps policy and national interests. The Americans have shifted from an alliance-based to a transactional foreign policy, and a parade followed by a firm handshake and a nice dinner just isn’t strong enough currency.
So, atmospherics aside, let’s talk about the French strategic position.
The French think of the European Union as theirs, and with good reason. They are, after all, the people who made it. With the end of World War II the Austrians, Germans and Italians were occupied, the Low Countries were rebuilding from rubble, the Swedes and Swiss were neutral, the Spanish were languishing under a local despot, and all Central Europe was locked away on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The strategic competition that had dominated the past millennia of European history was on hiatus, and the French found it almost too easy to force their political will on a shattered continent. And so Paris pulled together Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg to create the European Coal and Steel Community, which a dozen treaties later evolved into what we now know as the European Union.
But for the French it was never about economics. The French metropolitan territories are rich. Phenomenally productive farmland. A wealth of inhabitable climate zones. Great rivers for industry and internal transport. A population far younger and aging far more slowly than the European norm. The French economy has always been held mostly in house, and the Cold War era was no exception.
France also boasts easy access to the North Sea, Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, giving France – and France alone – fingers in every pot that matters to Europe. France’s position near the westernmost extreme of the European Peninsula even grants it good strategic depth, even if that “depth” belongs to other countries.
French strategic isolation freed up French defense planning to focus on the far horizon, as evidenced by France’s nuclear aircraft carrier and nuclear missile force. Nearly alone among the European states, the French do not need someone to defend them. It all means that the French didn’t really see a huge attraction to the Americans’ Bretton Woods plan.
The French know full well that should the Americans walk away from Bretton Woods, the global security that enables the European Union – which is at heart a union of exporters dependent upon global access – would no longer be possible. That obviously upsets Macron, but it doesn’t overly hurt France. Just as the Americans designed the world order for strategic reasons and so never lashed their economy to Bretton Woods, the French designed the EU for strategic reasons and so never lashed their economy to Europe.
Any global breakdown, even a European breakdown, is one that France can survive without the sort of catastrophic and transformative economic, political, cultural and strategic shocks that will so ravage almost everyone else.
France also faces no meaningful strategic challenges in the near- or mid-term. It is far enough away from Russia and Turkey to avoid complications from their expansions. Its position on refugees is so hostile that few try to go there. Its neighbors are militarily inept, demographically imploding, horrifically dependent upon America’s global trade and security strategy, or in most cases, all the above. In contrast, outside of the United States and the United Kingdom, it is the French who have the longest and most active history of engaging in military interventions. French forces are capable, experienced, professional, not at all in danger of rusting on the shelves, and when they go in, they go in hard – even in places such as Sub-Saharan Africa where the Yanks fear to tread.
That more or less dictates that in a world without the Americans running things, France is by far in the best position of any country on the planet (besides the United States itself) to chart an independent course. Macron isn’t hopscotching around the world (just) because he is a megalomaniac on an ego trip. He is doing it because he represents a waking superpower, because the world that is shaping up is a world in which France will shine, because he’s laying the foundation for France to once again be an imperial power.
No wonder Macron has been so combative with Donald Trump of late. Not only does his country have the most insulation from any meaningful trade conflict, his country is by far in the best position to do well should it all fall apart.
One of the beautiful things about having a strong national system with no international dependencies or exposures means that you can choose your battles rather than having them chosen for you. France will become a free actor at heart. That makes it somewhat difficult to suss out precisely what the French will go after, but there are three themes worth considering.
First, the French have to have a German strategy. The French have fought multiple wars with the Germans over the years and most of them… have not gone particularly well. The combination of Bretton Woods and the European Union enabled France to both defang the German military and harness the German economy to serve French strategic interests. It has been a happy time, but it is nearly over – which means Paris now needs to figure out a way to either re-harness Germany, point it firmly in another direction, or both. A rumbling Russia intent on re-securing its outer periphery before demographic collapse turns it into a brittle shell provides opportunities for both options simultaneously.
Second, the French need a Western Mediterranean strategy. As the only Northern European country with a Southern European foothold, the French have a unique capacity to leverage the capital, industrial and population densities of Northern Europe into a region that doesn’t have a whole lot of capital, industry or population. (France’s most important imperial territories were in the Mediterranean basin for good reason.)
There is a great deal more opportunity than danger for the French here. Italy and Spain and Portugal may be European, but projection-based powers they are not. With the EU on the ropes and likely soon to be gone from this world, France quickly becomes first among not-even-close-to equals and will be able to use its superior capacity to shoehorn the Southern European trio into any container it wishes. France already enjoys solid relations with Morocco and Tunisia, and while French-Algerian relations are reliably testy, in a post-American world Algiers will have no reliable partners aside from their former imperial overlords. Libya even presents an opportunity for a French state-building effort which, courtesy of Libyan oil, might even pay for itself.
Success in the first two strategies requires a third strategy: that of temporary alliance. There will be conflicts of interest constantly not only with Germany and Algeria, but with countries one step removed: the United Kingdom, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, the Netherlands, Sweden, Russia, even the United States. All will maintain capacity to get in France’s face, and yet all will prove to be tactical allies based on the issue of the moment. Securing such temporary alliances is a French national specialty, but a flair for dealmaking does not mean France will be able to leverage those positions into something greater.
Projecting power beyond your home region requires reach, access, insulation and strength. France has all of those, but only enough to dominate its front and back yard, and only then with a lot of back and forth. Moving into the Eastern Mediterranean or Sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East, much less Asia or the Western Hemisphere requires a degree of spare capacity that France simply cannot generate unless it simplifies its neighborhood.
That could take many forms. Overcoming Algerian cantankerousness and successfully burying the hatchet would make the Western Med a French pond. An entente with merry ole London would lend itself naturally to co-dominion of the North Sea. A meaningful alliance with desperate Russia or neo-imperial Turkey would put Germany so firmly into a box that it would buy France a free hand in Western Europe. A (public) understanding with those neurotic Americans would go a very long way on everything.
But all these options require the French doing something they do not do well: act reliably and in good faith. That’s not how the French tend to function. France tilts the board. France switches sides. France abandons lost causes. France ditches allies. France extracts what it can when it can however it can because the French know they won’t be involved in any particular situation for long. France is a successful player because France is a player. As the French themselves say, “France has no enemies or allies, only interests.”
That switch-hitter mentality has served the French well for centuries, and continuing to follow the only-interests mantra will indeed enable France to reclaim its position as the first power of its region. But the constant back and forth prevents France from becoming more.
It is easy for a powerful, united nation to carve out a temporary sphere of influence in a time of global upheaval. But building something bigger, something that lasts, that requires a cleared board – and that is something that France cannot do unless it has a few allies who truly trust it.
Times of international chaos are wonderful opportunities to reset cultural norms. Emmanuel Macron’s rise to power shattered the traditional French political elite, making this an opportune time to change the French mindset on what the word “alliance” means.
Let’s see what he does with it.