The Geopolitics of the French Presidential Election
The writing is on the wall for the 2022 French elections, and the word on everyone’s lips is perlimpinpin. With The Economist estimating a 90% chance of reelection for the incumbent president, what we are witnessing is less a pitched battle for the soul of the country and more a negotiated surrender by the political extremes to Emmanuel Macron and the centrists of La République en Marche. This has interesting consequences for two reasons.
First, this would make Macron the first president in 20 years to be reelected. This is major because of Macron’s unique position as an emergent candidate without a party and with a very personal mandate, signaling a lasting shift in French politics and a decisive rebuke of the back-and-forth between two well-rooted establishment parties. Macron would have, short of a divided parliament or cohabitation, a mandate for sweeping change in France’s policy, particularly in terms of foreign policy.
Second, unusually weak leadership in Europe (Scholz) and across the West (Biden) combined with the abrupt end of a long era of peace on the continent is a massive boon to Macron’s proactive vision for European leadership. The question isn’t about what Macron wants or whether he has the political capital to achieve it; it’s about which resources he has access to in order to affect massive change.
Broadly, this grants Macron’s second term three orders of geopolitical opportunities: ascendancy over historic rival Germany, leadership within the European Union, and renewed engagement in Western Africa.
Macron’s, and France’s, sudden tailwind can be broadly attributed to one thing: the utter untenability of the German economic, military and diplomatic position.
When Angela Merkel stepped down after nearly 20 years in charge of the largest economy in Europe, many in the commentariat anticipated that Macron would take advantage of the power vacuum to step up as the de facto leader of Europe. This was expected to be rather difficult – Merkel’s helms(wo)manship had steered Europe out of the 2008 financial crisis and had cemented Germany in its leadership role, particularly financially and diplomatically. While certainly a weaker leader at the head of a broad coalition government, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was expected to continue Merkel’s middle-of-the-road foreign policy; faced with that level continuity, and contested domestically by a strong right-wing current, it seemed unlikely that Macron would have the opportunity to effectively steer Europe to suit his desire for a more muscular Europe.
Then Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, and 20 years of Russo-German engagement went from a policy success to an enormous liability. In under a month, Merkel’s legacy of rapprochement collapsed, destroying Germany’s credibility as the de-facto leader of Europe and forcing Scholz to backpedal at full speed. In France, Macron’s adversaries on the far right and the far left have been forced to fully disavow Vladimir Putin, often after years of lionizing him and legitimizing both his claims and his rule. The effect on the electorate as captured by recent polling has been massive, showing Macron pulling ahead to the point where his victory is utterly assured. From a foreign policy perspective, this has done an excellent job of giving a second Macron term the go-ahead to continue with all of his previously stated goals: more European integration and a more muscular common foreign policy. Even more significantly, the once-maligned notion of an EU Army is finally being discussed as a serious option. Between Macron’s renewed diplomatic clout, his status as the senior statesman in the Franco-German partnership, and the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, France is now well-positioned to push for its own agenda at the head of the common bloc.
All Gassed Out
Beyond soft power, Germany also took a major hit when it came to cold, hard cash. As the West united behind a massive sanctions package with the aim of crippling the Russian economy, Scholz, very publicly, took a knee, incapable of hitting Putin where it really hurts: energy. Germany leads Europe as Russia’s number one partner when it comes to gas and oil imports, and only just overseen the completion of the Nord Stream II pipeline following the construction of Nord Stream I in 2011 and 2012. Having backed away from nuclear after the Fukushima Daiichi incident at the turn of the decade, Germany’s pivot to renewables was meant to benefit from a stopgap reliance on Russian exports. As a result, Germany is massively reliant on Russia for gas (32%), oil (34%) and even coal (53%), and any halt in imports would be have a massive impact on the wallets of average Germans. Given that energy exports account for 40% of the overall Russian economy, Germany is now the leading (though hardly the only: many other European countries are similarly culpable) cause of the sanctions failing to include a ban on oil and natural gas.
Because of this, France’s nuclear I told you so gives it massive leverage. Its economy is substantially less vulnerable to a decoupling from Russia than the rest of Europe. In addition to this, France is also a net energy exporter, which means that Macron will likely begin his second term with the German Chancellor at his door, hoping for neighborly charity.
Nuclear power is tricky to export: like solar and wind, it can’t be stored, frozen, or shipped via truck or boat. For this reason, France’s energy generation has largely served as a hedge against foreign sources of energy rather than a source of potential leverage abroad. Currently, France is a net energy exporter to every neighboring country but Germany; the collapse of Russian exports will no doubt see that relationship reverse completely, leaving France as Europe uncontested energy superpower. This will have an impact on consumer prices in France; but with far greater flexibility than its neighbors due to coastal access to the US energy market as well as a more dynamic nuclear programme, France is well-equipped to consolidate and turn short-term pain into long-term supremacy. A positive trade balance with Germany via the energy market would be a massive source of newfound legitimacy for the French presidency, not to mention a source of national pride and substantial new funds with which to combat any economic instability.
Remilitarizing the Rhine
On the 27th of February, Scholz backed away from over 70 years of German pacifism and pledged to increase military spending to 2% of GDP. Undoubtedly, the intention is to eventually establish a new German military industry. But that’s not going to be possible given the urgency of the situation. On the one hand, Germany’s forces are currently so behind that the Wehrmacht lacks the funds to even mobilize the majority of its own resources. On the other, the German economy is woefully unprepared to start churning out tanks. Germany will have to move heaven and earth to expand its armed forces enough to be able to build a decent military from a personnel perspective.
But for everything else? There’s Dassault. Germany’s inability to effectively expand its production capacity at speed is France’s gain. Having sustained a tradition of strategic independence since the presidency of Charles De Gaulle, France is the only European power truly capable of projecting itself on a global scale, and it has an industry to match: France leads the world (save for Russia and the United States) in arms exports, and as such the list of weaponry France is capable of manufacturing at scale is substantial. Germany’s decision to rearm suggests that Berlin will be shopping for weapons in Paris for the foreseeable future.
France likewise stands to gain financially when the infrastructure for German weapons production is online, as integration benefits both countries. This will likely engender a situation similar to the European aircraft manufacturing industry: a strategic partnership between Germany and France to produce domestic equipment. With the looming debate surrounding the creation of armed forces for the EU, such integration becomes even more meaningful: The countries at the helm of the European Central Bank will be in a position to set the prices for new European weaponry. Again, this benefits any French leadership with an expansionist view of European might and with a penchant for military adventurism, such as Macron. Macron’s interventionist foreign policy agenda now comes with a built-in stimulus package and job creation effects. It’s a dream come true.
With no other incentives, the benefits affiliated with Germany’s newfound spending are already more than enough to ensure a muscular French foreign policy. But there are even more opportunities on the horizon in Europe and beyond.
In Europe, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Greece benefit from increased French influence in financial institutions as it would most likely represent relief after a decade of German-imposed austerity measures, anemic lending and high interest rates.
Meanwhile, Europe’s gas and oil shortage incentivizes a pursuit of the remaining untapped resources, most of which are situated in West Africa. France’s relationships with its former colonies in that region can be messy at the best of times, but France has leverage. With the fertilizer shortage resulting from the invasion of Ukraine, much of the food production of the West African region will become unviable, resulting in food shortage and mass starvation. Starvation incentivizes increased African engagement with the French in two ways.
Firstly, France is Europe’s agricultural superpower. French exports could be of enormous benefit in alleviating suffering and strengthening France’s network of former colonial partners. This leaves the French in a position to dictate the terms of economic engagement which means France’s postcolonial infrastructures in Africa, such as the CFA Franc and its resulting power imbalances, will endure.
Second, France is, as mentioned above, the only European power capable of military power projection. In other words, France is capable of sustaining African stability, through military force if needed. Given the increase in arms production and military spending, as well as the dearth of energy resources in Europe, this gives France every reason to establish deeper military and economic ties with Western Africa, putting it in the position of literal power dealer for the rest of Europe and making it the hand that feeds in Africa, and all of this while giving it the grounds to serve as a counterbalance to China’s investments on the continent. That kind of leverage is unprecedented in the postwar era.
Africa isn’t the final horizon for renewed French engagement. France’s increasing diplomatic presence in Lebanon in tandem with the United Arab Emirates increases French leverage in Middle-Eastern politics. The rest of the Mediterranean basin, in which France is the only nation capable of major power projection, is therefore bookended by French naval power.
The 2022 election and the mandate it could bestow therefore represents a massive opportunity for France to advance its interests both within Europe and beyond it, potentially constituting a sea-change and finally placing the French ahead of their traditional rivals in Berlin and London. For a president like Macron, with a foreign focus and whose agenda is contingent on the acquiescence of other European powers, it’s a once-in-a-generation opportunity.