PARIS --- Having seen his hopes for European defense leadership scuppered by his handling of the war in Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron now seems to be searching for ways to restore his relevance. One sign of this search are the trial balloons that he floated during a Nov. 9 speech delivered in Toulon aboard FS Dixmude, one of the French Navy’s Mistral-class amphibious warfare ships.
Not unsurprisingly, Macron now finds himself isolated in Europe, and probably has a hard time understanding why he -- the first French President in 50 years to have consistently increased defense spending, and the only EU head of state to have both nuclear weapons and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council – is not accorded the central role in European defense that such an eminent personage so richly deserves.
One reason is that, at a time when all of Western Europe is throwing money at its military, to the point that several will reach and exceed the 2% GDP defense spending goal years before France, Macron’s spending record is no longer strikingly better than others.
And while United States has widely publicized its military aid to Ukraine, now approaching $20 billion, the fact that France has been coy about the assistance it has provided does not add to its standing as a shining example of European solidarity.
Macron’s road to restoration
The first step in Macron’s path to restore his European defense credentials is in the nuclear field, and that is why his speech in Toulon corrected an awkward statement he made during an Oct. 12 television interview.
Not being very conversant in military issues, despite his propensity to don military garb whenever possible, Macron mis-spoke by saying in the interview that a nuclear strike “in the region” of Ukraine would not affect France’s “fundamental interests.” This was taken to mean that France would not react in case of a nuclear strike on NATO’s Eastern European members, and clearly didn’t help his standing in that region, which is already underwhelmed by France’s apparently stingy military aid to Ukraine.
So, in Toulon Macron clarified by saying that “today more than ever, the vital interests of France have a European dimension,” adding that “our nuclear forces contribute, by their very existence, to the security of France and of Europe.” While this is not of earth-shaking significance, it will probably have reassured the Eastern Europeans as it was meant to.
Rebuilding burned bridges
Now to fix conventional issues. In July 2017, barely three months after having taken office, Macron sprang an unwelcome surprise on the United Kingdom, with which France had been cooperating on various defense programs, including naval mine warfare and the Future Combat Air System, by announcing that he had agreed to develop a new generation of weapons with Germany, including the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) future tank.
There has never been a clear explanation for the switch – lack of progress, insufficient UK funding, Brexit have all been mooted – but suddenly the old French-German defense couple was back.
And then it wasn’t. After four fairly unproductive years that were long on words but short on acts, Olaf Scholz replaced Angela Merkel as German Chancellor, and proved far more adept at throwing money at the Bundeswehr – over €100 billion in addition to increasing annual budgets – than at relaunching cooperation with France.
Germany had already ordered P-8A Maritime Patrol Aircraft instead of waiting to develop a new maritime patrol aircraft with France; it has still not signed on to the Tiger Mk III upgrade program along with France and Spain; it has deferred to 2045 a plan to develop a new long-range artillery program with France, and tried to take control of the future Main Ground Combat System by forcing Rheinmetall into the program.
Germany’s reluctance to continue with long, expensive and not always successful joint weapons development was clearly stated by Bundeswehr chief Gen. Eberhard Zorn who, during a panel discussion at the DGAP think-tank in Berlin, said he no longer wanted "experiments with development solutions in the EU.” Instead, he said Germany wants "things that fly, that drive and that are there on the open market, instead of “a European development solution that doesn't work afterwards. (. . .) There is everything we need on the market,” he said.
So, Scholz seems more interested in buying more US weapons off-the-shelf – F-35 fighters, CH-47F Chinook helicopters, etc. – than in pursuing defense cooperation with France. An Oct. 26 meeting in Paris by Macron and Scholz produced nothing – not even a joint communiqué, as is usual – and France faces the prospect of going it alone.
Weathering another German snub
As if upsetting the Franco-German cooperative cart was not enough, Germany soon added insult to injury by launching, apparently without having warned France, a new European air-defense initiative at the NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels on Oct. 13.
15 states joined together against a common threat. The goal of the #EuropeanSkyShieldInitiative: The joint procurement of a European air defence system, with effect at close range and over medium and long ranges. #StrongerTogether pic.twitter.com/PdgnePYo0S— Verteidigungsministerium (@BMVg_Bundeswehr) October 13, 2022
Berlin’s idea is the joint procurement of a European air defense system, and 14 countries had already signed up when the project was announced. Since then, Austria has expressed interest in the European Sky Shield initiative.
Bypassing France for such a major initiative is ample evidence, and very publicly presented, that Paris now holds little attraction for Berlin as a defense partner, despite continuing rumors – albeit emanating from industry rather that governments -- cooperation on FCAS and MGCS might soon resume.
Re-Entente not-so Cordiale?
Having spurned the UK in 2017 to elope with Germany, and now experiencing the same treatment from Germany, Macron has little room to maneuver if he is to recover some semblance of relevance on the European defense scene.
So, in Toulon he sprung a new initiative, saying that despite the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, he wishes to "actively resume the thread of our dialogue on operations, capabilities, nuclear and the hybrid field, and reconnect with the ambition that befits our two countries. friends and allies” – the very same dialogue he himself had cut off unilaterally.
And to achieve this, a bilateral defense summit will be held in the first quarter of 2023, he announced.
So far, there has not been a peep out of London about this proposal, and it would not be surprising if the British government were to consider the proposal a bit cavalier, given Macron’s 2017 swing to Berlin. And, six years on, London may not feel the same need to reconnect.
So where does this leave Macron and France?
Claiming without explanation that the "profound strengthening of European defense is a real achievement of the last five years,” Macron said in Toulon that he intends to “continue this momentum by developing our partnerships with the various EU Member States,” that he has studiously ignored for years. But, he recalled, Germany remains an "indispensable partner with whom we are engaged in deeply structuring programs."
The man is clearly clutching at straws.
Unless there is some quick, visible and significant progress on the main cooperative programs with Germany – FCAS and MGCS – both Macron and France will remain isolated on defense issues.
While Macron’s continued isolation would mainly affect his ego, France’s could prove devastating for her future military programs.