Bringing Europe's Leaders Together

To deliver results, French diplomacy needs less grand posturing

President Macron’s recent overseas visits have stirred up partners but his strategic objectives are right, writes François Le Goff.

First, it was DRC President Felix Tshisekedi who told French President Emmanuel Macron to abandon his country’s imperious attitude and paternalistic look towards Africa during a live press conference that quickly turned into a verbal joust, which should never happen in public between Heads of States.

Then there was the trip to China and the comments on Taiwan made by President Macron on his way back to Europe, just as Beijing was engaging in major military exercises around the island. What was perceived as rash comments on Europe’s need to distance itself from the US-China rivalry, and to resist pressure to become America’s “followers” on the Taiwan conundrum, triggered strong criticism in Germany and the UK. It was meant to connect the dots between the French President’s visit to China, during which he attempted to project Europe’s freedom of thought, and his upcoming speech in The Hague on strategic autonomy. But this resulted in a diplomatic faux pas.

Emmanuel Macron was right to seek to reshape France’s image in Africa by adopting a new approach to partnerships based on an equal footing, especially in countries like the DRC that are so important to the supply of critical materials for Europe’s energy transition. He was right too to point out in China that Europe needed to find its own path in the world. But on both occasions the delivery and messaging were rather poor, and this is unfortunately mainly due to Mr. Macron’s Jupiterian personality.

The implications of these unfortunate performances are that they turn French foreign policy into a caricature and add fuel to divisions within Europe at a time when relations between European countries require delicate attention and consideration. The reopening of an old European fault line was highly visible on 11 April during the Polish Prime Minister’s visit to Washington D.C. In a clear rebuke to President Macron’s renewed call for strategic autonomy in The Hague, Mateusz Morawiecki stated that Poland was seeking significant interoperability between US and Polish defence systems and close cooperation with America as it planned to become a major military player in Europe. Poland, Prime Minister Morawiecki noted, was once again the face of “New Europe”. “Old Europe” – i.e France and Germany – had mistakenly attempted to negotiate with Russia and failed, he added, in the same way as they were unwilling to confront Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2002/03.

Apart from France, strategic autonomy has always been a fairly alien idea for the majority of European countries who sought the protection of the American nuclear umbrella at the end of the Second World War, and it will be impossible to achieve in full. If Europe manages to significantly rearm and ultimately be responsible for its own defence and security, it will likely be mostly with American weaponry. But if French diplomacy wants to succeed in its strategic autonomy ambition at least partially it will have to give up the grand Gaullist postures and focus more humbly on a small steps approach. Bilateral agreements with like-minded partners like the Netherlands is one example. On 12 April, the two countries signed an Innovation and Sustainable Growth Pact which will see them cooperate more closely in areas such as semi-conductors – and notably between STMicroeletronics and ASLM – quantum physics and energy. This came after King Willem-Alexander praised the French ambition to build a “resilient Europe, capable of making its own choices”.

In The Hague, President Macron correctly pointed that the elusive concept of European sovereignty he first outlined in his 2017 speech at the Sorbonne University had since gained traction, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine exposed Europe’s vulnerabilities and dependencies. The kind of protectionism that the French President evoked – when Europe’s security was at stake – is no longer a taboo. A few years ago, Germany blocked the takeover of satellite and radar technology firm IMST by a subsidiary of state-controlled missile maker China Aerospace and Industry Group (CASIC) due to security concerns. More recently, the Netherlands put restrictions on exports of its most advanced microchip technology for similar reasons.

One area where Europe can still achieve a certain degree of strategic autonomy is clean energy and, more broadly, the green transition. Countries like France, Germany, the UK and others are major players in this field and there is common interest in building a strong industrial base to deliver this transition, and to mitigate the impact that the US Inflation Reduction Act is having on European competitiveness. The EU’s Green Deal Industrial Plan and March’s relaxation of state aid rules for renewables, hydrogen and other low carbon projects are important steps in formulating a European response to the US IRA. France can play a key role in supporting the European Commission on this.

On defence however, the French vision of an independent European industry seems deeply undermined in the face of the urgency to upgrade and rearm with the best available military equipment following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

François Le Goff is General Secretary of the Club of Three. The views and opinions expressed in this article are personal.  

Published in April 2023