By: Manlio Graziano

Paris Has Lost the Russian Card
Originally Published in International Affairs Forum on December 23, 2022
and Scenari as "La guerra di Putin ha minato la centralità della Francia" on December 9, 2022
Photo Credits: Canva
Last June, Emmanuel Macron provoked a diplomatic semi-crisis with Ukraine, as well as the wrath of the Baltic officials and “disbelief” from America and Britain, for having advised against humiliating Russia. “With this declaration, France humiliates itself” was the harsh reply from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kouleba. If one sticks to the letter of that verbal and diplomatic confrontation, one would have to say that both Macron and Kuleba were both off the mark; by June it was already clear that it was Russia who was humiliating itself, showcasing to its own population, and the world, all its failures and weaknesses.

Macron's statement, however, was not to be taken literally. It was a figure of speech – a litotes – to avoid saying openly what the French president had in mind, namely: “Russia must be saved”. Had Macron explicitly expressed his thoughts, the diplomatic incident with Kiev and the Baltic capitals would have been much more serious. Such verbal jousts between foreign ministries are a key part of the public stage of international politics. The Ukrainian and Baltic leaders, using the same rhetorical weapons, were conveying their own opposing viewpoint: “Russia must be humiliated”. To believe in the sincerity of their indignation would be to do them an injustice; it would be to accuse them of not knowing France and, above all, of not knowing the history of the relationship between France and Russia.
Before the 1894 formal alliance, this relationship had known ups (few) and downs (many and deep). Their diplomatic ties were established in 1702, on the initiative of Peter the Great, almost a hundred years after the first unsuccessful approach by Russia to the court of Louis XIII (1615). At the beginning of the eighteenth century, France was the most important European power, and therefore, in the eyes of the tsar, an effective counterweight to the dangerous rapprochement between Sweden and England. But the complex and changing European multipolar game – between France, Great Britain, Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, Prussia, Austria and the Ottoman Empire – was not favorable to the formation of stable and lasting alliances. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, France and Russia sometimes found themselves fighting on the same front (the Seven Years’ War, for example), but they landed more often on opposite fronts (the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War, just to mention the two most famous cases). Concerning the first, everyone remembers the invasion of 1812 which cost Napoleon nine tenths of his troops and led to the fire of Moscow, a disastrous retreat, the loss of Paris (invaded by the Russians) and, finally, of the throne. Few, however, remember that, in 1801, Napoleon himself had proposed a joint Franco-Russian attack on India, initiating what would become the “Great Game”: the Russian advance in Central Asia in the hope of conquering British India and reaching the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

The turning point in Franco-Russian relations was the German unification of 1871. Bismarck’s skillful diplomatic strategy had made it possible to keep Russia on Germany’s side through the League of the Three Emperors (1873) which strengthened relations with Austria and isolated France. This alliance was short-lived as the rivalry between Vienna and St. Petersburg in the Balkans, and Russian fear of the increasingly threatening German power – later confirmed by the signing of the Dual Alliance between Berlin and Vienna in 1879 – drove Russia into the arms of France. On the French side, Paris had desperately sought allies against the German threat – which had now become existential despite Bismarck’s reassurances – after the débâcle of 1870-71. After repeated rejections by London, and the departure of the “iron chancellor”, France threw itself into the arms of Russia.
The official alliance was signed in 1894, with a mutual pledge to go to war should Germany attack either country, thus forcing Berlin to fight on two fronts. If this commitment was one of the dominoes that led to the outbreak of the First World War, the geostrategic disposition of this alliance was the trap into which Germany fell in both great conflicts of the 20th century.

However, by this point Russia was already a military giant with feet of clay. With its particularly hostile environment - an immense territory crossed by a few non-navigable and distant rivers, difficult access to seas that are frozen for part of the year - and an economy still weighed down by feudal residues, it was difficult for Russia to accumulate the necessary capital to trigger a modern industrialization. After the 1894 treaty, for both strategic and economic reasons, it was France that provided massive investments, to the extent that, according to economist Olga Crisp: “the evolution of French capital investment followed that of the Russian economy in general” (Studies in the Russian Economy Before 1914, New York, 1976).

Despite the “betrayal” of the 1917 revolution, and the decision of the Bolshevik government to unilaterally cancel all debts (causing a severing of diplomatic relations with France), the beginning of the German rearmament in 1935 was at the origin of the rapprochement between Paris and Moscow. When Russia was attacked in 1941, de Gaulle assured the support – exclusively symbolic, of course – of “Free France” for the USSR. In signing a treaty of alliance and mutual assistance with Stalin in 1944, the intention was to leverage on Russia to try to counterbalance the overwhelming weight of the Anglo-Americans at the negotiating table. The attempt failed, and de Gaulle was not even invited to Yalta a few months later; but that treaty further solidified the old practice of the two countries using each other as a counterweight against stronger rivals.
During the post-war period, and despite their opposing positions in the Cold War, France never hesitated to use Russia to increase its relative weight in a context in which its formal allies – the United States, Great Britain, and Germany – aroused in Paris irritation, resentment and concern rather than sympathy. It wasn’t a matter of liking Moscow; of course; but Russia was farther away, weaker, and had the great merit of keeping Germany divided (an essential factor at a time when almost all the French were thinking what the writer François Mauriac dared to say aloud: “I love Germany so much that I am glad there are two of them”).

Returning to the present, the recent quarrels between Macron and Olaf Scholz have reminded everyone that the relationship between France and Germany after the war – but also after the Common Market, the Elysée Treaty and the European Union – has been constantly tainted by mutual suspicion, if not something stronger, despite the outward displays of friendship. Thus, while Germany sought reassurances in Washington, France sought them in Moscow. When Germany approached Russia, France made an unsuspected Atlantic shift. All of this occurred in a context in which the association between Paris and Bonn served, sometimes precisely in league with Moscow, to weigh on Washington (as in the case of the 2003 war, without great success, however).

By removing the element of Russian leverage from the French and German toolkits, the aggression against Ukraine broke the gears of that tested machine of reciprocal equilibrium. It is not important to know if Moscow’s calculations included the prospect of reinvigorating the hegemony of the United States in Europe; anticipated or not, this is precisely the main outcome of their “special military operation”. Therefore, it is possible to say that the United States is the great winner of this war while France and Germany are the main losers (along with Russia, it is true, but Russia asked for it). Even after the 2008 conflict in Georgia, the 2014 invasion, and the subsequent annexation of Crimea, Paris and Berlin moved rapidly to mend the rift, perhaps animated by different motivations and objectives, but coinciding on the need to keep active their relationships with Moscow. The Minsk agreements displeased everyone, but they allowed things to continue as before, almost as if nothing had happened.

Many will remember Macron’s visit to Moscow on February 7 this year (made famous by the surreal kilometer-long white table between him and Putin), and maybe even Scholz’s a week later, in an obvious attempt to convince his Russian counterpart to curb the war machine. That double failure humiliated and isolated Paris and Berlin and made it clear that Moscow had deemed its sole counterpart to be Washington. For the two European capitals, the margins for distancing themselves from the rest of the so-called “Western front”, or even for opposing it (as in 2003) were lost.
It is true that France and Germany, despite the inevitable condemnation of the invasion, have in any case maintained open channels with Russia, arguing the need to leave exit routes to avoid Russia’s total humiliation. It is also true that they have been sparing in their aid to Ukraine: according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, as of October 3, in terms of total aid Germany was ranked third overall, but only 16th in proportion to its GDP, while France was seventh overall – giving nearly two-thirds less than Poland – and 21st in terms of its GDP. In terms of armaments, France has promised less aid than Australia and even Estonia and Latvia. This cautious distinction from the anti-Russian hawks could allow Paris and Berlin to re-enter the game in the event of peace negotiations, but, even in this case, this would only be possible if the United States authorized or even pushed them to do so (i.e. without recovering those margins of “strategic autonomy” with respect to Washington that the two European capitals had more or less carved out for themselves in the past years).

Energy diplomacy, which had been the cornerstone of German Ostpolitik since the 1970s (and, conversely, a rock in America’s shoe), is practically dead. This is perhaps America’s greatest achievement and the biggest headache for Berlin, not only for political reasons but also for immediate economic reasons. For Paris, the defeat is twofold, on the Atlantic front and on the European front; on the latter, the shift of the center of gravity towards the Baltic (and therefore towards the countries closest to the United States), is accompanied by a new imbalance in its complicated relationship with Germany. Some interested (i.e. French) observers have pointed out that a shift of the center of gravity towards the East harms France more than Germany: the former risks being sucked towards the Mediterranean while the latter sees instead a revaluation of its traditional sphere of influence. Following this logic, one could read the recent anti-German request for WW2 compensation by Poland as a pre-emptive move against a possibly strengthened Germany (let us remember though that Poland can hardly make a move without the agreement of the United States).

In the background of all this stands China, which, regardless of Russia’s intentions, lies at the heart of the whole game. For Americans, Russia has traditionally been of relative importance: it has been most useful as a wedge to divide Europeans (as during the Cold War) and in this sense, Putin and his cohorts have managed to do more and better for the United States than successive American administrations have managed to do in the last thirty years (with the exception, perhaps, of the 2003 war). China, on the other hand, is a strategic competitor against which Washington is deploying all its weapons (political, ideological, diplomatic, military and economic) to the point of making the decoupling project – the reduction of dependence on Chinese products and supply chains – a strategic line not only internally, but also internationally, pushing its alleged friends and allies to follow suit. But these alleged friends and allies have different interests: not only has China now become the first trading partner of the European Union and not only have European investments in China continued to increase, but Germany alone represents 43% of these investments in the last four years, and France around 10%. Economic and political reasons should therefore “naturally” push Berlin and Paris to claim “strategic autonomy” in the Indo-Pacific but, since this “strategic autonomy” can no longer be claimed in Europe, the idea of doing so in Asia has now become a fantasy. This is even more true if Berlin and Paris are fighting among themselves to decide, albeit too late, who represents Europe at a historic juncture in which Europe is actually being represented by Washington. To try to get out of it in one piece, Macron can try to make nice with Biden but, if he is to have any hope of convincing the American president, he will need an unabridged and un-humiliated Russia to resume that balancing game in which Paris has been training over the past one hundred and thirty years.
The opinions expressed in this article is 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.