Debate Magazine

Can Macron Boost France’s Standing in the Western Alliance?

Posted on the 23 August 2017 by Shahalexander

President Emmanuel Macron shows consummate diplomatic skills to boost France’s position in Europe and on the global stage. While he had a successful meeting to invite controversial US President Donald Trump to the Bastille Day ceremony, he defied an American demand that NATO allies increase defense spending to 2% of the GDP, and gave priority to the economy. This sort of neither flatterer nor foe attitude was witnessed when Macron and Trump met each other for the first time at the NATO summit (“The reason behind Macron’s firm handshake with Trump, revealed: He was warned!”; Washington Post; May 25, 2007). Both leaders stared at each other, and gripped their counterpart’s hand firmly when they shook hands, as if they were dueling arm wrestling. It was quite impressive and illustrative of Macron-Trump relations. How Macron strikes a balance of these international and domestic requirements?
Let me talk about diplomatic approaches to President Trump by major Western allies. Germany is exploring more self-reliant and European-oriented foreign policy, rather than relying on whimsical Trump. That was typically seen at the icy press conference after the Merkel-Trump meeting in Washington. On the other hand, Britain and Japan are compelled to deepen security and even trade relations, despite Trump’s questionable America First values. Despite anti-Trump criticism at home, Theresa May and Shinzo Abe want to keep the special relationship with the United States to reinforce their international standings. Meanwhile, Canada takes an intermediary approach between German and Anglo-Japanese one. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in a starkly different position from Trump over migration, refugees, political freedom, political correctness, and trade (“How Trump Made Justin Trudeau a Global Superstar”; Politico; July 1, 2017). Therefore, Trudeau asked Vice President Mike Pence and state governors to persuade NAFTA-skeptical Trump to update the trade agreement on the occasion of the National Governors Association conference at Providence of Rhode Island (“Trudeau, Pence, Elon Musk, and 32 governors all in one room? In Providence?”; Boston Globe; July 14, 2017 and “Trudeau urges governors to stand with Canada on trade while agreeing to 'modernize' NAFTA”; CBC News; July 16, 2017).
Macron’s approach is more proactive and also more unyielding to Trump than other Western leaders. Gideon Rachman comments that Macron’s strong position to deal with America’s new administration. At the first handshake with Trump, he showed that France would not give in to the flamboyant counterpart, while smiling gently. Macron has made it clear that he aligns with Merkel to advance internationalism. On the other hand, Rachman points out that May’s Global Britain does not impress world leaders, because Brexit is taken isolationist. Her aspiration for deeper ties with nationalist Trump makes her globalist self-assumption increasingly questionable (“Emmanuel Macron demonstrates fine art of handling Donald Trump”; Financial Times; July 14, 2017). May’s position is somewhat in common with Abe’s. Macron used his advantage effectively to impress the Franco-American friendship. More importantly, Trump did not gaffe anything so far as foreign policy and bilateral relations are concerned.
While Macron hosted Trump to the Batille Day ceremony, he defied the pressure to boost defense spending. But this issue is not just Trump. France is an independent nuclear power, her national security interest goes beyond a NATO commitment. The Chief of the Armed Forces General Pierre de Villiers resisted Macron’s plan to cut defense budget by 850 vehemently, as he believes it necessary to restore the spending level to 2.6% of GDP in 2000 from 1.8% last year, in view of French military involvement in the Middle East and the Sahel Africa. However, Macron wants to keep the deficit below 3% of EU requirements, in order to manage budget strains after 2007-2008 global financial crisis. After a bitter conflict with the President, General De Villiers resigned (“Macron takes on the military’s chief, and the military loses”; American Enterprise Institute; July 20, 2017).
Considering Macron’s career in the bureaucracy, business, and the Minister of the Economy in the Hollande administration, he is supposed to place strong emphasis on the economy, and it is necessary to understand an overview of his foreign and domestic policy. Professor Zaki Laïdi at L’Institute d’etudes politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) comments that Macron has no clear foreign policy goals yet, but his foreign policy success depends on domestic economy. Poor domestic economy precluded his predecessor François Hollande from boosting France on the global stage (“The Macron Doctrine?”; Project Syndicate; July 4, 2017). Macron ran for the President to move his economic reform as the Economy Minister forward. To begin with, he plans to remove labor code to lower costs, stimulate productivity, and increase economic flexibility. Combined with deregulations, he envisions to cut corporate tax to help French industry grow more competitive in the global market (“Will Macron's Overhaul of the French Economy Succeed?” National Interest; July 13, 2017).

However, the real problem is whether such a drastic defense spending cut serves French national interests. Macron may have won the bitter conflict, but the cost of sidelining highly esteemed De Villiers will be great, according to Martin Quencez at the German Marshall Fund. Cold-shouldered by the President in the policy making process, the armed forces would lose morale for their job, which would make them reluctant to tell critical security information to him (“French Chief of Defense's Resignation a Difficult Start for Macron”; Trans Atlantic Take; July 19, 2017). Jean-Baptiste Vilmer, Director of the Institute for Strategic Studies, which belongs to the French Ministry of Defense, mentions that France faces several vital security challenges out of the Euro-Atlantic area, such as the civil war in Syria, terrorism in the Sahel, the stability in Libya, the maritime expansionism of China, and nuclear threat of North Korea. In addition, France must manage Russian threats and domestic terrorism, and update nuclear arsenals (“The Ten Main Defense Challenges Facing Macron’s France”; War on the Rocks; May 10, 2017). Can France deal with so many national security challenges? The problem is beyond Trump. Macron may want to boost defense spending, once debt-ridden economy is resolved (“France in the World and Macron’s foreign policy paradigm”; Aleph Analisi Strategische; 19 July 2017).

The proposed defense spending cut focuses on the equipment, which could inflict long term impacts on French armed forces, particularly on power projection capability. In view of counterterrorism requirements in the Middle East and Africa, France needs more tanks, armored vehicles, and heavy-lift aircrafts (“French President Emmanuel Macron is wrong to cut defense spending”; July 19, 2017). Despite this, Macron shows his willingness to get involved in counterterrorism in the Middle East and Africa. After De Villiers’ resignation, he appointed General François Lecointre who commanded the EU Training Mission in Mali to the Chief of Defense Staff. Despite the cut, France deploys 4,000 troops in Africa to fight against terrorism, and urge other European nations to join her operations (“French Military Spending Squeeze Prompts Top General's Resignation”; VOA NEWS; July 20, 2017). However, Macron may appear hypocritical, if he fails to re-increase military spending from next year as he promised. Anyway, it is not clear when the economy will turn well enough to reboot the expenditure. Therefore, France in a tricky position in the Western alliance.
One of Macron’s options to resolve such a quandary is to deepen defense ties with the United Kingdom despite Brexit. According to recent Wikileaks, Macron’s e-mail interactions reveal that France is considering whether to advance the CSDP (Common Security and Defence Policy) of the EU or maintain the Anglo-French military ties, as Britain remains most active in defense among European nations. Quite importantly, Macron is skeptical to Germany’s initiative for integrated European troops, because she does not pay sufficient for joint military projects (“Macron email leak: British military ties to France 'more important' than flawed Germany-EU plan”; Daily Telegraph; 31 July, 2017). In other words, Germany is not necessarily reliable for France in fiscal constraints. Beyond the Euro-Atlantic sphere, France shares more interest with Britain. In the Middle East, both countries have naval bases in the UAE and Bahrain respectively, in order to fill the power vacuum, in the case of America’s pivot to Asia. Also in Asia, both France and the United Kingdom join the Operation Freedom of Navigation in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, it is domestic politics that could have significant influence on the success of foreign policy endeavors. Currently, Macron’s approval rate at home is declining sharply. One of the reasons for growing unpopularity is fiscal austerity. The budget cut is not just for deficit reduction. This is also for vitalizing the private sector whose growth has been clouded out by government expenditure and regulations. But as the following Financial Times video on July 26 tells, fiscal austerity is inherently unpopular. Particularly, military, teachers, and local governments denounce the cut vehemently. De Villiers resignation inflicts damage beyond defense. Furthermore, people blame Macron’s tax cuts and economic liberalization, because they see those policies exacerbate inequality.

More problematically, most of the Macronistas of En Marche are young and inexperienced. Traditionally, 5th Republic French politicians have been mostly ENArque, Macronistas are represented by startup businessmen. Their lack of government experience confuses French politics (“Macron’s Revolution Is Over Before It Started”; Foreign Policy --- Argument; August 14, 2017). Ironically, Macron faces the same kind of trouble that his ideological opponent Trump does. His début was so impressive, but currently, En Marche needs a Nestor to rebuild his leadership. Can Macron’s policy advisor Jean Pisani-Ferry assume this role?


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