by Manlio Graziano
A Geopolitical Compass for Tracking Macron’s Shifts
Also Published on the IA Forum on 20th March 2024
Shortly after his election, Emmanuel Macron rebuked a middle-school boy who had addressed him as “Manu” (short for Emmanuel) by stating firmly: “To you, I am Monsieur le Président.” Like all those who think highly of themselves, Macron is extremely touchy. Thus, when an individual highly touchy by nature ascends to the presidency of France, their inherent tendencies are magnified by a factor of “G” (for “grandeur.”)

One can imagine the frustration Macron felt in the days following February 24, 2022 - not so much because of the invasion of Ukraine but because the failure of his last-resort attempt at mediation in Moscow, and especially because he had to passively follow the quick and vigorous American response. At the same time, he witnessed the resurrection of NATO, which he himself had pronounced “brain dead” just a few years earlier.

The historical context
At the close of the last century, amidst the European Union’s burgeoning success, discussions regarding a potential “European pillar of NATO” grew increasingly persistent. This notion represented the latest iteration of a concept conceived by Charles de Gaulle as early as 1943, envisioning a European “third pole” capable of standing on equal footing with the United States and the Soviet Union, both politically and militarily. A pole, it goes without saying, de Gaulle saw as being led by France, with the indispensable but subordinate involvement of Germany (“La France doit être le cavalier et l’Allemagne le cheval,” de Gaulle allegedly remarked). The Treaties of Rome in 1957 and, notably, the Elysée Treaty of 1962 between France and Germany marked significant strides toward this goal. The establishment of the European Union in 1992 and the introduction of the euro in 1999 were pivotal strategic junctures for the Old Continent; however, they were also instruments crafted by Paris to “restrain” a Germany that had grown too cumbersome following its reunification in 1990.
The Iraq War of 2003 triggered a rift between what Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, labeled as the “old Europe” — represented by France and Germany, aligned with Russia on the issue — and the “new Europe,” comprising nearly all other EU members, particularly those that were formerly satellites of the USSR during the Cold War. Consequently, the concept of a “European pillar of NATO” was shelved, remaining dormant until Macron revived it in 2017 with the phrase of “European strategic autonomy.”

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has cornered France and Germany. Not so much because of the invasion itself but because of the rapid and harsh response from the United States, which compelled its allies to fall in line. The echoes of the 2003 precedent, especially amidst a crisis unfolding on European soil, obliged Paris and Berlin to acquiesce. This is why both Macron and Olaf Scholz had ventured to Moscow a few days before the outbreak of the conflict — in a last-ditch attempt to avert the risk of yet again finding themselves squeezed between Washington and Moscow.
With the war in Ukraine, Russia ended up strengthening and consolidating NATO and, within NATO, strengthening its eastern flank, the countries most closely aligned with America, sending Macron’s “strategic autonomy,” yet again, into the attic. In the first year of Russia’s ill-advised “special military operation,” the United States and its closest allies in Northern and East-Central Europe could be counted among the winners of the conflict, leaving the Franco-German pair among the losers – along, of course, with Russia itself.

What has changed
For over a year, Macron grappled with his frustrations. However, the situation changed, and the French president again seized the initiative.
The primary and most significant development originated from the United States. It stemmed from Congress’s continuing failure to pass the aid package to Ukraine, largely due to the anti-NATO and pro-Russian rhetoric of former (and possibly future) president Donald Trump, as well as the Gaza conflict, which starkly demonstrated the diminishing influence of America.

The second change arose from within Ukraine itself, amid the petty jealousies between political and military leadership and growing difficulties on the battlefield.
The third change stemmed from the increasing alarmism within defense ministries and the media across numerous European countries, notably in Germany, where there were calls for greater resources and the reinstatement of mandatory conscription in response to the perceived “Russian threat.”

These three new developments have created the perfect conditions for the grand revival of the “strategic autonomy” project, and even for the establishment of a “common European defense.” The narrative suggesting that Moscow is winning the war, and that not only Estonia or Moldova but also Poland, Sweden, and even Germany and France could be the next targets of Russian expansionism, serves as a catalyst for a unified effort to redirect public resources from civilian to military sectors across Europe. In essence, this narrative argues: we face a common adversary, hence there is an imperative need for a common defense. By not ruling out the possibility of sending boots on the ground, Macron aims to escalate the stakes and pressure hesitant leaders into choosing sides: either among the courageous or among the cowards (the lâches,” in the term the Président used on March 5).

Macron’s target is, first and foremost, Germany. Recent shifts in the political climate there, including within the Social Democratic Party, have not gone unnoticed in Paris. Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has emphasized the imperative of acknowledging the “threat of war” and has advocated for an escalation of Europe’s defense efforts. These words are music to Macron’s ears, particularly given that Pistorius’s boss, Olaf Scholz, has adopted a more cautious tone, while both firmly reject the notion of deploying boots on the ground.

Before Macron’s March 5 statement, it appeared that “strategic autonomy” and “common European defense” were garnering increasing support in Germany -- so much so that both Handelsblatt and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitunghad breached a taboo by openly discussing nuclear armament, both at the European and national levels. However, under the current circumstances, it seems highly improbable that the French president will encounter any willingness in Germany to pursue the possibility of deploying European or NATO troops to Ukraine.

What next?
Indeed, in Germany, some proponents of “strategic autonomy” initially downplayed Macron’s March 5 statement, framing it as a calculated move of “strategic ambiguity” — a tactic aimed at sowing doubt among adversaries. Others interpreted it as an effort to regain political momentum ahead of the European elections in June. Putin answered Macron by warning that he could use the nuclear weapon against European cities; if this threat were to be taken seriously, risking Armageddon to grab a few more votes would be criminal, to say the least. Yet, like a skilled poker player holding a weak hand, Russia excels in the art of bluffing, and Macron understands that the risk of triggering Armageddon is minimal. Nonetheless, he is gambling with something equally grave from a strategic perspective — the unity of the Old Continent. This risk carries significant implications for Europe, and consequently, for France as well.

Attempting to pressure the German chancellor, even hinting at portraying him as a coward, can hardly be deemed as one of the most successful strategies to bolster Franco-German friendship. This is especially true considering that until a few weeks ago, Macron was perceived as the most conciliatory of Europe’s most influential leaders towards Moscow. Furthermore, Germany stands as the second-largest contributor of aid to Ukraine in absolute terms, providing more than $22 billion between January 2022 and January 2024, while France’s contribution ($1.7 billion) doesn’t even rank in the top ten. Even when factoring in the costs of training, information sharing, or access to space satellite services, the disparity remains huge.

But these are details. From a geopolitical standpoint, France seems to be repeating a historical hazardous pattern without showing any signs of learning from past mistakes. Since 1943, there has been a prevailing notion in Paris that Europe must either be French or not exist at all. The shifting power dynamics within an integrating continent following Germany’s reunification left France feeling defrauded, leading to a punitive stance exemplified by the 2005 referendum that derailed the Constitution.

Macron has consistently acknowledged that France is nothing without Europe, yet he, like his predecessors, persists in the belief that the only way to unify Europe is to essentially make it a Greater France. This is unlikely to be palatable to the other 26 countries of the European Union, especially those that remember Macron’s call in June 2022 to “not humiliate Russia.” Attempting to offset the repercussions of that statement by humiliating Germany hardly seems like much of a step forward.

The opinions expressed in this article are of the author alone. The Spykman Center provides a neutral and non-partisan platform to learn how to make geopolitical analysis. It acknowledges how diverse perspectives impact geopolitical analyses, without necessarily endorsing them.