In our previous op-ed, we touched on the impact of Macron’s personality, psychological traits, and intellectual and ideological convictions on France’s foreign policy. All the time, perceptions of French presidents have had a profound impact on the republic, but this grew stronger under Macron’s presidency due to the concentration of all the powers in his hands, his unilateral decision-making, skepticism about the ideologies of the relevant bureaucracies, and his unfettered desire to listen to differing opinions.
In an interview with journalist Isabelle Lasserre, one of Macron’s advisers noted that the president listens to all views and attends to all his interlocutors, except for his advisers. While this declaration is undoubtedly exaggerated, it is demonstrative of the leading statesmen’s disapproval of some of Macron’s orientations. The result? The underutilization of the ministries’ skills, their immense repository of knowledge, and detailed familiarity with strategic and political affairs.
Furthermore, Macron has recently issued a decree that will change the rules of the membership of the French Foreign Service and end its monopoly on a significant number of posts, a step that will further endanger France’s repository of knowledge.
For Macron, France –even if it fails to realize this– is ripe for becoming the ideal mediator. On the one hand, it is the major military power in the European Union (EU) and has a nuclear deterrent, a permanent seat in the Security Council, the right of veto, an extensive network of connections, and a measure of autonomy. On the other hand, its size is not creepy when compared to others. Macron believes that playing a mediating role will not cost France too much. Rather, it will bring Paris considerable gains and a strong presence in the media. If mediation fails, the cost will not be all high, just a little of cynicism in the media. I’m not sure of the validity of Macron’s estimation, simply because much mediation means more engagement in international issues which would expose him to be accused of disinterest in the problems of the French people against his constant quest for a personal role. Moreover, mediation between France’s allies and enemy states such as Iran would arouse doubts in the minds of leaders of all the involved countries.
As noted in our previous article, President Macron is not a postmodernist man. He believes that France should have a leading global civilized role for its good and the good of humankind and maintains that France is rich with its talented skillful people and heritage but its current size and internal workings don’t qualify it to take center stage or play this mediating role. For him, this is the age of giant countries; so, if France wishes to maintain its position and contribute to the success of the EU, deepen its roots, and speak on its behalf, it needs, first and foremost, to consolidate and deepen its ties with Germany. Noteworthy, Philippe Etienne, who served as a Diplomatic Advisor to Macron is one of Germany’s friends, as is the case with Macron’s finance minister as well as others.
Macron is one of those skeptical about the intentions of the United States and its modes of action and he is aware that Europe is no longer a top priority for Washington that opts to devote its efforts and powers to countering China. While this offers an opportunity, it poses a threat at once as it requires building up a European military force and an industrial base that guarantee Europe’s strategic independence, developing understandings with Russia to, at least, ward off its danger and convince it that its place is in Europe and that its civilization is European.
While the reasoning behind this view may be compelling and strongly coherent, it overlooks some pivotal facts, or at least exaggerates the ability of France and Macron to make change.
Macron envisioned that his wit, rhetoric, statements, and speech about the economy and fear of China would drive Putin to revisit his position towards developing meaningful understandings to all parties, but failed to realize –or listen to those who realize– that Putin’s memory is bloodied, that Russia sees that the West has hurled unforgivable insults at it which makes turning a new page with it difficult, and that Russia’s desire to keep neighbouring countries subordinated to it is jarring to all former Soviet Republics and Eastern European countries that find dreams of the Russian empire appalling. President Macron’s disregard for the positions and concerns of Eastern European countries led these countries to reject, either overtly or implicitly, Macron’s concept of Europe’s strategic independence, which they saw directed against Washington rather than being a weapon against Moscow. What added fuel to the fire were Macron’s critical statements of leaders of Poland, Hungary, and Italy, among others. Some argue that Macron’s mistakes made failure of his approach inevitable. Instead of building consensus among European countries on the need for dialogue with Russia, he acted unilaterally, which caused his initiative to lose much of its meaning and become of little weight.
Advancing this large-scale project requires mutual understanding and coordination with Germany and Chancellor Merkel. Despite convergence of the positions of Paris and Berlin on Moscow, divergences in perceptions, understandings, political projects, modes of action, and priorities of the two countries are profound. While France views leading Europe as a shared German-French responsibility, Berlin sees that Germany is unilaterally leading Europe, that it is the octopus economy that controls the continent, and that it should strike a balance between its relations with Paris and its relations with Warsaw and other Eastern European capitals. Germany has a disciplined fiscal policy while France is an extravagant, or even a spendthrift country. France has an army and a high-level strategic culture whereas Germany is scared of possessing any tool of hard power and sees them as non-essential since it is after all “surrounded by friends” and relies on the US security guarantee (and surely no one in full possession of their mental faculties would substitute the US guarantee with the French one). Germany has a commercial strategy but lacks defense and security strategy. France is a highly centralized state, the French president has prodigious powers, and Macron has introduced reforms that would allow for accelerating decision implementation and the decision-making process. Germany, in contrast, is a decentralized country and the powers are distributed between the central government and states on the one hand, and the executive and the legislature on the other. Decisions to intervene abroad are sluggish and subject to strict rules and measures. Furthermore, Germany has a coalition government and any decision should be taken based on consensus between two or three parties. The French state has stakes in the major French companies while major German companies are family or individual owned. Governance in the French companies and relations with unions are very different than those in Germany. Beyond all of this, the two countries’ have differing stances on Turkey and its president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Berlin fears the strength of the Turkish and Kurdish communities in Germany. Even when it comes to personalities, Macron and Merkel are very different persons. Merkel is good at managing crises and Macron thinks strategically; she is reticent and he is talkative; she believes in compromise while he always tries to convince his interlocutors of the validity of his views; she specializes in the natural sciences and he studied philosophy, political and social sciences; and, she is patient and he is impulsive.
Macron has always been aware of the importance of relations with Germany and Merkel –who has suffered from all the French presidents she dealt with– had good faith in him. She saw him as a strong young man who is sincere in working with her and in his desire to reform France’s finances and economy. Merkel’s experience working with President Trump made her convinced of the soundness of France’s view of the risk of reliance on the United States. After nearly five years of working together, it can be argued that Macron convinced her of the need to support the economies of southern Europe and to accept the deficits in Europe’s national budgets and collective debt as a solution to confront Covid-19.
However, relations between Paris and Berlin have been shaken by crises and shake-ups, all of which could be attributed to Macron’s way of action and his tendency to take his counterparts by surprise through his unilateral announcements without any regard to their own circumstances. In September 2017, Macron delivered a speech in which he put forward proposals for a renewed EU, an address that came at an unfortunate time, two days after the German federal elections. Merkel saw it as an interference in Germany’s internal affairs that would affect negotiations to form a coalition government and support the positions of the opposition parties. Merkel never forgave Macron for this and did not respond to his proposals but rather left this to secondary cadres of its party. She also changed its approach to France, started obstructing Macron’s initiatives, either by opposing or ignoring them, and responded very slowly and only limitedly to his requests. Moreover, she deliberately stirred up Paris’ anger by calling on Macron to give up its permanent seat in the Security Council and turn it into an EU seat. Beyond this, the domestic turmoil in France played a role in dampening Merkel’s enthusiasm towards France.
In November 2019, another crisis erupted when Macron’s allies were taken aback by Macron’s statement of NATO becoming brain-dead. This declaration was a protest against the US leniency on Erdogan’s aggressive policies, whether in Libya or towards Cyprus, Greece, and the eastern Mediterranean countries. Back then, Germany tended to appease the Turkish president for fear of his ability to create internal turmoil on its territory, along with pacifying with Washington to strengthen its alliance with the United States. Therefore, Merkel (as well as other European leaders) saw Macron’s statement as a French attempt to widen the gap between Europe and the United States to build European independence in the face of Washington. In other words, at a time the deterioration of international security prompted European countries to move towards deepening relations with Washington, France saw this deterioration and Washington’s tendency to appease the Turkish president as drivers to move towards building Europe’s strategic independence.
Overall, estimates indicate that President Macron is right about his quest for building Europe’s strategic independence and strengthening its defenses. Europe’s military situation is dire and the situation is difficult given the conflicting and differing interests of European countries but Macron failed to convince European leaders of how such independence would strengthen NATO by reducing the US commitments in Europe and thus avoiding obstructing its efforts in Asia. Instead, several times he made his initiative seem as if directed against Washington and its dominance over Europe. Additionally, he didn’t manage to give Eastern European countries a signal that he understands and cares about their interests and fears of Russia, those fears that recent events proved valid and grounded. As far as I judge (as well as many others in France) it wouldn’t have been possible for Macron to engage in a quietist rhetoric towards Russia and reunification of Europe while adopting an anti-Washington rhetoric.