Diplomatie à la française.
France in the world.
In this week’s Not in Dispatches, we zoom out from the current headlines and look at the member of the UN Security Council “Permanent 5” which is getting a little less attention these days. China? Britain? Mais, non. La France.
While France may not be on today’s front page (outside Europe), France has stolen its share of headlines the past few months with a series of coups in its former colonies, a summit on creating a new global financial architecture and, most recently, President Macron calling to create an international coalition to fight Hamas à la that against Islamic State.
How best to understand France, its worldview and foreign policy drivers and priorities?
The French exception.
France is an objectively important country in global affairs.
It is a nuclear power and, as mentioned, a permanent veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council. It is the world’s seventh-largest economy and, after Germany, the most powerful member of the European Union. It has the world’s third-largest diplomatic network. And it has almost unparalleled cultural pull (or “soft power”) as the world’s most visited country with millions of foreigners learning its language, eating its food, and drinking its wine.
Key to understanding France is its exceptionalist mindset. France matters not because of data points about “hard”, “soft”, or “smart” power, but because it considers itself exceptional, having bequeathed to the world fine art, literature, philosophy, fashion, and, above all, ideas.
“France”, goes a saying popular from the 1970s, “may not have oil but it has ideas”. First and foremost, it has the liberty, equality, and fraternity of the revolution, but also secularism and peace through multilateralism. And unlike the mercantilist Anglos or the practical Germans, the French see themselves as intellectual and idealistic.
And even in the face of danger, they have often responded with the pen over the sword: France’s navel-gazing after the Franco-Prussian War led it to establish what is now its leading university, SciencesPo, to improve the education of civil servants. Few countries would respond to military defeat by creating a school.
More broadly, France views itself as the bastion of the Enlightenment and a defender of what it considers universal values, even if they have distinctly French roots. Dominique de Villepin’s 2003 speech to the United Nations opposing the anglophone world’s war in Iraq is the representation of this mentality par excellence.
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Midnight in Paris.
But France’s exceptionalism is also tempered by an anxious sense of decline.
La nostalgie, melancholy, and frustration all moderate France’s ambitions. To the French mind – statesmen and ‘Yellow Vest’ protesters alike – things were always better before. And the response is often to reminisce about the past, complain about the present (and, always, the present leader), and idealise an alternative future.
Perhaps uniquely, the French mind allows these opposing worldviews – exceptionalism and nostalgia – to coexist. And they play out in its foreign policy.
France’s sense of importance (justified or not) allows France to play itself into global security more than it might merit.
It attaches perhaps more importance to multilateral diplomacy than any other country – not only as a vector to secure its interests but because it deeply believes in multilateralism in principle. And France’s self-confident, intellectual approach to diplomacy has made it the progenitor of many grand initiatives – such as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and European “strategic autonomy” – but, like all ideas, not all of France’s work.
France’s nostalgic declinist mentality (justified or not) manifests internationally.
Having lost an empire, France still regards itself as having strong interests in its former colonies in Africa and the Middle East. Distrustful of America’s geopolitical and cultural supremacy, France instinctively pushes back against the United States.
While this “third path” or “third way” attitude peaked under de Gaulle, Macron’s insistence on strategic autonomy (in defence and the economy) comes from the same place. And fears of lost power, combined with an idealist belief in international institutions, are the drivers behind its faith in the EU.
From de Gaulle to Macron.
Macron’s foreign policy, however, has always tended to France’s ambitious side. And in the French system, which gives the President almost unfettered power over foreign policy, personal leadership matters.
Macron sees a large role for France, as the natural leader of Europe and always needing to chart an independent course from the US. In his own words, he sees France as a balancing power, with the power of initiative (“puissance d'equilibre”, “puissance d'initative”).
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Macron attempted to mediate before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, led Europe’s political support for Ukraine after the invasion, and publicly endorsed EU and NATO membership. He adopted a global leadership role in improving the West’s relations with the “global south” (recently convening a summit with ambitions to resolve debt and liquidity issues and reform the international financial institutions by next year’s Paris Olympics). And he broadened France’s strategic interests to cover the Indo-Pacific (including helping the EU to devise its own strategy).
At home and abroad, such ambitions are often seen as vanity projects.
Many expect the hastily convened Summit on a New Global Financing Pact to go nowhere. The anglophone world largely viewed Macron’s response to AUKUS – a defence pact brokered without France that led to the cancellation of a major submarine contract with Australia – as throwing a tantrum. And in Russian, after Macron’s busy phone diplomacy after the war began, a neologism was coined: макронить or “to macron”, which today means to call in vain at any time of day or express concern for a situation but do nothing about it.
Ambition aside, Macron’s foreign policy fits into a long third-way tradition of being driven by a need to avoid being weak or rely on others. On China, it sees a “partner, competitor and systemic rival”. On the US, much the same (albeit with a sometimes-awkward mutual defence obligation thrown in).
Much of France’s domestic and foreign policy settings since the Second World War have been designed to never allow it to suffer as it did during that disastrous conflict.
France adopted (and, unlike Germany, retains) nuclear power and energy independence. It has the biggest and most capable military in Europe. And it puts much effort into developing critical sectors, with leading pharmaceutical, technology, and infrastructure industries.
The home front.
France also has a very important defence industry – the third largest defence export industry in the world (behind the US and Russia). Its defence sector is a powerful political constituency (employing around 400,000 people in 5,000 firms) and instrument of state (accounting for 25% of Europe’s military capabilities). French foreign policy is as much driven by exports of guns as butter.
George W Bush was perhaps slightly incorrect when he said French does not have a word for “entrepreneur”. Indeed, France has 31 of the world’s 500 biggest companies and a thriving tech start-up scene, boasting 25 unicorns. High taxes, notoriously challenging bureaucracy, long lunches, and protests at the drop of a hat crimp overall productivity. But they also contribute to a strong centralised state, an effective if comparatively large welfare system, and a strong sense of national pride.
And ironically, for a nation that styles itself as a socialist republic, and one that thumbs its nose at the inequality and excesses of the more capitalist anglosphere, one of the world’s richest people, Bernard Arnault, is French. His company, LVMH (owner of luxury brands Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, among others), is headquartered in France.
This speaks to the contradiction within the French identity.
France is a quasi-socialist state but with entrenched familial wealth and an elite social class dominating the political, cultural and economic landscape, which makes social mobility difficult. It is also both a progressive society in terms of its rules, but deeply conservative in terms of its attitudes. And it is a country sure of its identity to project on the world stage, but unsure of its identity at home as the number of migrants arriving increases, and views of secularism are challenged.
As de Gaulle is attributed to have asked: “How can anyone govern a country with 246 varieties of cheese?”
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Plus ça change.
But domestic politics may change France’s outlook.
Street protests over cost-of-living pressures have been a constant feature of Macron’s rule and he has struggled to pass key legislation through the National Assembly. Most importantly, however, Macron’s political success, despite his unpopularity, has gutted the French centre.
When he leaves office, he will leave a polarised political scene. Both the far-right and far-left are in the ascendancy on the back of populist positions appealing to cost-of-living and migration concerns. Many in La France profonde, outside cosmopolitan Paris, fear that migration over the past few decades has not only changed France’s demographic complexion but the essence of France itself. And often France’s adherence to laïcité, its strong version of secularism, can complicate as much as advance relations between its ethnic minorities.
Both extreme right and left are challenging not just France’s approach to multicultural policy, they are challenging the orthodoxy for how France views its interests and place in the world. Indeed, presidential hopefuls in the 2022 elections, Eric Zemmour (right) and Marine Le Pen (far-right), both argued France must place its interests over its values, whether in restricting immigration or responding to Russia.
The biggest question for French foreign policy is whether, by 2027, after Macron’s final term, France will define itself in its traditional grand universalising way or begin to define its interests more narrowly.
And indeed, in a world becoming ever more multi-polar and ever more uncertain, that debate of interests over values is a question for everyone.
Montesquieu once wrote that the French “do frivolous things seriously and serious things frivolously”. And, in that spirit, we hope you enjoyed this slightly frivolous edition of Not in Dispatches in otherwise serious times.
Michael, Cameron, Damien, Yuen Yi, Andrea, and Kim.