Ceci n’est pas un Cabri: L’Europe, l’Europe, l’Europe!
Macron’s recalling of France’s ambassadors isn’t so much sound and fury as it is a shrewd move to shape the future of European security, and ensure France’s position at its helm.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent decision to recall ambassadors to Australia and the United States marks one of the lowest points in a relationship long fraught with fraternal tensions. But the focus of Macron’s actions isn’t just this Atlantic friendship; it’s also Europe, specifically his dream for a more proactive and aggressive foreign policy for the European Union.
Anglophone news sources have spoken at length on the reasons and causes behind France’s abrupt recall of its ambassadors, underlining the nature of the insult and financial blow to the French while also exploring the reasons such decisions were taken in Canberra. Likewise, plenty of ink has been spent on the short-term nature of this feud. Many foreign policy luminaries have come to the conclusion that the long-term security consensus on China and the overall environment of collaboration within the West, are at no real risk. France will grumble, and has taken this insult to heart; but from a geopolitical perspective, this remains business as usual.
Despite the coverage, the rationales behind Macron’s choice to resort to such drastic measures in calling out his American and Australian counterparts have been left largely unexamined. All reports suggest that the Biden administration has been baffled by the severity of the response, yet most reporting so far has attributed it to a fit of Gaulish pique.
Observers are right to suggest that this reaction doesn’t fit the severity of the situation. What it does fit is the opportunity of the moment: a combination of circumstances that have left France unchallenged at the center of European politics and have given Macron an unprecedented chance to steer the ship of the international supra-state without the direct intervention of another senior European statesperson.
The reasons for this situation are multiple, but ultimately lie in the domestic French political landscape, Macron’s consistent vision for European foreign policy, and the significance of the impending German elections.
But first, let’s talk about the American government, and the severity of this gaffe. The Biden administration’s decision to sell nuclear submarines to the Australian government (thereby undercutting a preexisting deal that Canberra had with Paris) is highlighting perennial issues between the US and the European Union that were exacerbated under Donald Trump and have survived the change in administrations: a lack of faith in the US as a strategic partner heightened by impulsiveness and erratic behaviour. America’s lack of openness vis-à-vis its allies, demonstrated not just here but also with the hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan, doesn’t make diplomatic or strategic sense, serving only to needlessly damage America’s reputation as a reliable partner. This unwillingness to share critical information and plans with key partners suggests not so much a tactical pivot as it does the simple diplomatic disregard of the Biden administration towards France, corroborated by Jen Psaki’s recent statements on the matter (which deny any wrongdoing and insist that the French were notified of the deal … less than 12 hours in advance of its finalization (!)).
This dovetails with the overall decline of any form of order within the security apparatus, ostensibly led by the US, in Europe. The ongoing decay of NATO and America’s increasing reluctance to commit militarily beyond the South China Sea and the overall Pacific region is pushing the member states of the European Union to consider alternatives for national security and regional stability. Macron’s France, as the world’s third largest navy and the major outlier within Europe in its capacity to project power on a global scale, has been rather hawkish in its pursuit of leadership when it comes to the military capacities of the European Union, with the French president hopeful to bring the European Union around to this way of thinking.
However, there has been a fly in Macron’s ointment which has stymied any concrete steps in moving the European Union towards a more active role in ensuring its own security: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and her unfailingly dovish approach to any hypothetical EU-wide security cooperation or policy.
Chancellor Merkel’s consistent leadership has deprived Macron of one of the things he has sought the most: distinguished leadership within the European bloc. While the 30-year neoliberal consensus that aimed for full economic integration of liberal democracies and European security provided purely through NATO has begun to slip, broadly speaking, since the financial crisis of 2008, Angela Merkel’s devotion to this order has not. As a result, Merkel’s Germany has been a bulwark against change within the European Union on both a financial level (by favoring austerity measures within the common market) and a security one.
Upon assuming the presidency, Emmanuel Macron has consistently found himself in the position of the junior partner in Europe, his ambitions for the Union thwarted by the supremacy of Merkel’s CDU in Germany. Merkel’s leadership within Europe has tempered most French attempts to move towards multipolarism within the West, preventing any progress Macron would make towards this Neo-Gaullist Holy Grail.
With Merkel finally stepping down as Chancellor and a divisive election season in Germany leaving the throne empty (combined with the finalizing of Brexit in January 2021), Macron currently has the opportunity to set the tone of the security debate within Europe unopposed, an unprecedented situation for any French leader since the days of Jacques Chirac. The CDU’s domestic weakness has opened a window to dispute the European strategic consensus which has been heavily dependent on the mood of the German electorate since Merkel’s election in 2005.
In short, this is Macron’s chance to change the security discussion within Europe and, just as significantly, claim the role of the senior partner in Franco-German relations. To do this, Macron must refocus the discussion onto the unreliability of the US even under Joe Biden. By recalling France’s ambassadors to the US and Australia, Macron has underlined the need for a European foreign policy that is distinct from the Anglosphere. As a justification for this, he offers the following claims: that European foreign policy imperatives and incentives differ from those of the Anglosphere, and that, in the context of US-led western order, those European priorities will always come second to the seemingly erratic whims of American presidential administrations.
This is a narrative which has been adopted by many French Presidents since the days of the European Economic Community. Underscored by the sting of this recent and rather significant insult to French national pride, it is seeming to be all the more persuasive in 2021. In the French media landscape, support for Macron’s actions is all but unanimous. This has the added advantage of turning a national humiliation into an opportunity to shore up Macron’s legitimacy with an eye on the upcoming French presidential elections in 2022. Furthermore, this is beginning to form a pattern, with Macron’s remarks underscored by the German government’s clear disapproval of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in August.
The absence of a strong German chancellor and the ever-cautious counterbalancing of the British from the European equation provides a golden opportunity for the French to unilaterally advance their policy objectives for Europe, something Macron has certainly noted. We can safely assume that this isn’t an example of the petulant pro-Europe leadership De Gaulle famously described as “childish”, but political opportunism with a clear end goal. Macron’s France has systematically been at the forefront in attempting to provide an alternative to American unilateralism, be it in the sphere of diplomacy, technology, or digital rights; we shouldn’t assume it would be any different in matters of geopolitical security. This recent spat has handed Macron the tools to unilaterally effect change at the European level. The real question now is how far he will manage to advance in pursuit of his goals.
Image: “L’Europe, l’Europe!” by Shane McLorrain