France’s faltering international influence
After dozens of people died when their dinghy sank in the English Channel last month, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote an open letter to French President Emmanuel Macron. Blowing away the collegiality of the memo, Macron responded with his now customary bluster, criticizing the UK and ignoring the human tragedy of the drowning altogether. Macron vowed to never accept joint policing of the area to avoid further incidents, citing “our sovereignty.”
In April next year, French voters will decide on their next president. If no candidate wins an outright majority in the first round, a run-off will be held. Pummeled by the right wing, Macron finds himself increasingly pandering to nationalist voters. The once fresh face of the center-left En Marche movement has found himself increasingly fixated with France’s place in the world.
The last two French presidents, Francois Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, made an impact at home, for better or for worse. But rather than seek to impose France’s will on international affairs, they seemed content to act as custodians of the republic’s now cliched international decline. Satisfied with leaning in only on Francophone issues, they lost traction in Europe to Germany and neither was sufficiently comfortable speaking English to grow especially close to any US president.
The last grand seigneur of French diplomacy was the late Jacques Chirac, known as “Le Bulldozer” by colleagues for his forthrightness. He was robustly opposed to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, made more friends than enemies overseas, was muscular in his approach to France’s nuclear arsenal, and drew attention to climate change as the rest of the G8 dragged their feet.
His tenure is fondly remembered as a decade during which France clearly made its mark on international affairs. Macron has tried to adopt a similar approach, embracing the Gaullist principle of “affirming national sovereignty and unity.” However, in focusing exclusively on the former, his muscularity has not necessarily always increased France’s influence.
The Arab world is of immense strategic importance for France, which has otherwise been in a steady state of decline. Macron tried to embrace this when he was first elected by focusing on the threat posed by Daesh. He wanted to be seen as a protector of the security of French citizens. Implementing this philosophy in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Lebanon, his focus on the region became too narrow and the anti-terrorist narrative served to strengthen xenophobic voices at home, thus putting his government on an offensive footing with Islam, France’s second-largest religion.
Macron's focus on the Middle East became too narrow and the anti-terrorist narrative served to strengthen xenophobic voices at home.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Excluded from the Astana process on Syria, many had thought Macron would take the Iran nuclear program issue upon himself, but he has failed to have an impact despite France having the most cordial ties with Tehran of any of the P5+1. Where Hollande courted Riyadh and Sarkozy opted for Doha, Macron had the opportunity to adopt a more holistic approach to the Gulf.
With the election on the horizon, he was in Riyadh at the weekend. However, with the most prominent aspect of his regional impact having been protests against him and a boycott of French goods, it is unclear how this Middle East charm offensive will do little more than show him as statesmanlike in front of voters.
The “Macron method” has been used to describe the president’s hyperactive and supposedly disruptive approach to foreign policy, which is centered on his personal relations with other leaders. But this may have overstated his charm and tact. Macron had hoped to become a man about town in Washington, but his prickly relationship with Donald Trump, while actively courting Vladimir Putin, yielded little and he is yet to host or be hosted by President Joe Biden.
The exit of the UK from the EU gave France a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take the lead within the bloc, but his goal of revitalizing Franco-German relations and founding a “new partnership” between Paris and Berlin have foundered, as he has simultaneously sought to increase French power overseas. Tensions between France and Germany have been exacerbated by several foreign and security policy decisions Macron has taken, which have surprised or annoyed Berlin.
As Germany has sought to mend and empower the EU, Macron has sought to preserve autonomy in defense policy and to unilaterally fill the strategic vacuum that has been created by the waning US interest in Europe. Whereas Berlin has emphasized the development of NATO and the EU, Macron’s solo national efforts have hampered these plans. The recent fiasco following Australia’s security pact with the UK and US, and Canberra’s decision to cancel a major submarine order in favor of US nuclear vessels, angered many in Europe as Macron’s independent policies, which inevitably failed, were pursued in lieu of building Europe’s defense capabilities.
Now in his fifth year in office, the bold diplomatic interventions that were once seen as daring have destabilized the French presidency at several moments. As seen in Lebanon, France can have an impact — albeit as any leading European country would — in a failed state in the throes of crisis. However, on the big issues, France still struggles to have sway. The announcement of the withdrawal of its anti-extremist military force in the Sahel region in the first quarter of 2022 is a case in point. Like Macron, France can posture, but it lacks the long-term vision to establish and maintain influence.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).