Gaullist No More

4 March 2024

Last week President Macron surprised everyone by suggesting that some European countries might send troops to Ukraine if necessary to prevent a Russian victory. Perhaps that’s putting what he said too strongly: one might rephrase his remarks to mean that he didn’t rule out the possibility. But was this simply a standard “all options remain on the table” comment or something more? Clearly, European allies took it to mean something more. And so did Vladimir Putin, who promptly pushed back by rattling the nuclear saber once again.

But perhaps there’s less here than meets the eye. Until now, Macron has if anything been more conciliatory toward Russia than other leading European powers. He has tried to reason with Putin. He has made a point of acknowledging Russia’s security interests. In short, he has taken his inspiration from de Gaulle’s reluctance to align himself too closely with the western side in an east-west conflict. But now, suddenly, he is casting himself as the west’s most ardent champion. Why?

To be sure, all of Europe is worried about Donald Trump’s possible return to power and what it would mean for Ukraine. Macron’s last meeting with Chancellor Scholz of Germany did not go well, and perhaps he is trying to get a leg up on Scholz, who reiterated his refusal to send Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine (after a leak of a Russian espionage intercept of German defense officials criticizing this decision). And it’s no secret that the war has not been going well for Ukraine lately, so perhaps Macron felt it was time to warn Putin that he’d best not let Russia’s recent successes carry him away.

All this is speculative, of course, but what’s missing from the speculation is any consideration of French domestic political considerations. The campaign for the European parliamentary elections is now under way in earnest. Le Pen, whose party is well ahead in the polls, with a score nearly double that of Macron’s Renaissance–a humiliating position for any French president to find himself in, launched her effort this weekend alongside party leader Jordan Bardella. Macron has been seizing every opportunity to cast himself and his party as the diametrical opposite of Le Pen and the Rassemblement National. And of course Le Pen’s alleged closeness to Russia’s authoritarian leader has figured prominently in the effort to remind voters what the far right’s rehabilitation efforts have tried to conceal.

Would Macron really risk provoking the Russian dictator and incurring the ire of his allies just to score domestic political points? I’m fairly sure that, whatever else prompted his remark, the domestic political implications of his move were not lost on him when he made it. I also believe that, when it comes to the polls, his newly forthright stance toward Russia won’t move the needle at all.

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