Macron set to sharpen diplomatic focus after busy 2020
Amid the unprecedented uncertainty in global affairs of the last year, the marked rebirth of French diplomacy — through a series of frenzied overseas efforts — has been a striking new development. France, overwhelmed with domestic challenges, had seemed to have resigned its great power status in lieu of driving a more integrated Europe and a noninterventionist foreign policy. But a bolder and altogether more assertive vision took hold in 2020. Whether on the slopes of the Caucasus, in the warm waters of the Mediterranean or deep in the forests of Africa, France’s exigent President Emmanuel Macron is never too far from the headlines.
Macron’s very clear aspiration for an independent and vigorous foreign policy should not come as a surprise. As a president with an unmistakably Gaullist attitude toward France’s place in the world, Macron has made the most of the institutions of the Fifth Republic, established by Charles de Gaulle in 1958, which are designed to encourage strong government and a heavily personalized model of leadership. Having campaigned for the presidency at the head of En Marche, a political movement bearing his own initials and which he has since completely embodied, Macron has completely absorbed the hyper-personalized nature of the French Fifth Republic. His Jupiterian take on leadership has been applied to domestic as well as foreign politics. However, where domestically his top-down approach has resulted in severe pushback in the shape of the “gilets jaunes” (yellow vests) protest movement, internationally France has seen its influence grow markedly.
Although Macron began his presidency trying to make multipolarity and cooperation part of his policies vis-a-vis Russia and China to ease tensions and avoid continued sanctions, his government has become altogether more muscular overseas. Last autumn, France extended its influence over the Mediterranean for the first time in decades. In ostensibly seeking to combat the growing influence of Islamist ideologies, it has driven a wedge into a growing conflict between the EU and Turkey over natural gas resources and Ankara’s military maneuvers.
In Lebanon, where a devastating explosion exposed the rampant corruption and chronic failures of a kleptocratic government, Macron waded into a country that had long fallen out of France’s orbit. As Lebanon’s sectarian leaders lacked the political courage to confront public outrage at their abject failure to safeguard the Lebanese people, the French president walked the streets of Beirut, holding homeless civilians to his bosom and warning them that any future aid would be withheld until Lebanon’s leaders met French demands for political reform. France’s influence on the situation was so great that, in an unprecedented move, tens of thousands of Lebanese citizens called for the reinstatement of a French mandate — an act never before witnessed in the post-colonial age.
While successive French governments have been exasperated by the vicious cycle of debt motivated by foreign exploitation and poor governance in Africa, Macron has reinvigorated France’s historical ties with the continent. Centered on his fight against terrorist groups in the Sahel, he has sought to cultivate ties with African leaders that share his free market and liberal vision and broken away from the blind eye France has traditionally turned to poor governance in the region.
Meanwhile, as other global powers have met China’s Belt and Road Initiative with suspicion, France has sought to work with it. Having vigorously lobbied for an extension to the G20 moratorium on sovereign debt, the Elysee is preparing to hold a summit in Paris in May on investment in Africa, to which several dozen African heads of state will be invited. Through partnering with China, France is actively trying to provide an alternative for debt-ridden African states, while also perpetuating its leadership status in a part of the world it has traditionally held sway.
Where domestically his top-down approach has resulted in severe pushback, internationally France has seen its influence grow markedly.
Zaid M. Belbagi
This has also manifested itself in France’s cultural policy in Africa. Conscious of the adverse impact of digitalization, Macron has sought to preserve the use of the French language in Africa through his international digital strategy and the appointment of award-winning Franco-Moroccan author Leila Slimani as his personal representative to the International Organization of La Francophonie. Having conceded that the core of the French-speaking world is now “the Congo basin” as opposed to Paris, Macron has effectively given ownership of the French language to the Francophonie and sought to break away from its colonial connotations, while not totally losing the language and ergo France’s status in Africa.
With 2020 having ended with the news of the UK’s long-awaited exit from the EU, yet more strategic space will become available for France’s foreign policy posturing. With Britain’s exit, France — as the EU’s only remaining nuclear power and UN veto-wielding member — is pushing a program of strategic autonomy, which includes building up military capabilities to allow the bloc to operate independently of the US. How it will reconcile this with Germany, which does not see the strategic advantage of duplicating the efforts of NATO, remains to be seen. However, the departure of the UK will leave a huge hole in the union’s finances — a gap that France is not able to fill. Despite his overt commitment to European independence, it is, therefore, more likely that France will continue to seek a place for itself farther afield, where its strained resources can go further.
- Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid