Emmanuel Macron’s New Strategy Is Disruption

The French president is intentionally trying to change NATO and the EU—and the sooner the rest of Europe realizes it’s for their own good, the better.

French President Emmanuel Macron walks during a "Prise d'armes" military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris, on November 26, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron walks during a "Prise d'armes" military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris, on November 26, 2018. STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP via Getty Images

The last few weeks have seen a flurry of diplomatic activity and disruptive new rhetoric emerging from Paris. In a blunt and wide-ranging interview on the future of Europe last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said NATO was experiencing “brain death,” a few weeks after starting a new diplomatic initiative toward Russia to design a “new architecture based on trust and security in Europe” and opposing the opening of European Union accession talks to Albania and North Macedonia. Just a few days after last week’s NATO summit in London, Paris hosted the first summit in three years with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to reignite peace talks about eastern Ukraine.

Why and how should Europeans respond to the French president? On trips over Europe in the last weeks, from Berlin to Budapest, Bratislava, and Athens, I repeatedly heard the same mixture of interest and puzzlement, if not outright distrust, about French intentions. Does the French president want to push the United States out of Europe? Is Macron trying to kill EU enlargement? Did he come to a secret agreement with Putin?

Europeans shouldn’t read more than what Macron has actually said. Instead, they should seize Macron’s comments as a provocation—an opening bid intended to solicit their own views and red lines. Macron wants to seize Brexit and German paralysis as an opening for France to shake things up in Europe, but he knows he will need new partners. Macron’s vision—like any ambitious proposal—is riddled with blind spots that constructive partners can steer him away from. Europe should engage Macron to shape his agenda, rather than try to block or ignore him.

What is driving Emmanuel Macron? Traditional historical references are obsolete. Some have seen in Macron’s NATO comments a resurgence of old-fashioned Gaullist nationalism or French anti-Americanism. But there’s no way to reconcile that with Macron’s history of campaigning with EU flags waving at his rallies and investing heavily in the relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump. It’s no accident that France is the country that Trump has visited the most since his election, while Macron remains the only official state guest of the Trump presidency. The two men also led military strikes on Syria together. France is an active NATO member that General Mattis called Washington’s new “partner of choice” after Brexit. So much for anti-Americanism.

A closer reading of the Economist interview shows that Macron’s main point was about Europe, not the NATO alliance. The French president is convinced Europeans are sleepwalking into strategic irrelevance, in a world dominated by the U.S.-China rivalry, where shifting U.S. priorities will move it away from areas critical to Europe’s interests. This is a shift that started before Trump and will likely outlast him.

Elected president on the ruins of a powerless French political establishment, Macron treats Brexit or the Trump election not as mere warnings or accidents but as symptoms of a fundamentally shifting international system in which Europe faces the threat of getting left behind. His bid for a sovereign Europe that protects its citizens is a direct response to the challenge. He believes Europe must make the case to its citizens that EU institutions can protect them from unruly migration waves, from terrorism, and from unfair international competition. Can Europe seize back the initiative from its adversaries and assume its power, control its borders, defend its economic interests, define the rules, make swift decisions: act like an actual polity?

The French president’s recent approach can be regarded as brutal and unilateral. Why the sudden change of tone, two and a half years into his presidency? In Paris, analysts and officials don’t hesitate to clearly identify the culprit: Berlin. Early in his presidency, Macron invested heavily in the personal relationship with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hoping that in her last term she would rise to the occasion and accept structural reforms to the EU, such as eurozone integration and stepped-up defense plans. The thinking was that Berlin would overcome its reluctance when it realized it had a partner in Paris willing to tackle structural reforms to the French economy, such as the famously rigid labor market or the pension system. The feeling in Paris is now one of betrayal: Not only did Berlin not follow through, it didn’t even answer Macron’s proposals in his Sorbonne speech on European sovereignty or his letter calling for “renewal.”

Thus the new method. “Nothing in Europe moves without a crisis, so we’re engineering crises,” someone familiar with the Élysée’s thinking told me. Macron likely will continue seeking to disrupt the European status quo. The outcry provoked by his interview will no doubt convince him he has tapped into uncomfortable taboos and hypocrisies in need of dismantling. Despite the way Macron became an object of controversy during the most recent NATO summit, Paris believes it was a success. Macron was intent on forcing reflection on the future of the alliance, and that’s what he got. Paris was especially pleased with NATO’s format commitment to an expert panel to discuss the alliance’s future and the mention of terrorism as a threat in the summit’s final communique.

Similarly to its NATO provocations, France circulated a memo proposing a more gradual enlargement process a few days after opposing the opening of new enlargement talks with Albania and North Macedonia at the October European Council meeting. The proposal included more stringent conditions on the rule of law for applicant countries and the possibility to reverse the accession process given a lack of progress. If other EU member states wish to reopen the door to accession talks next spring, they should seriously examine and discuss Macron’s proposals and make counterproposals of their own. While France’s partners rightly want to keep the EU open and engaged in its periphery and are eager to support North Macedonia’s courageous peace agreement with Greece, many EU officials also agree in private that the enlargement process had become too bureaucratic, running on autopilot. Candidate countries such as Serbia and Turkey had exposed the EU’s ineffectual procedures by backsliding on democracy with little European reaction.

Other European countries should likewise reach out to Paris to shape Macron’s renewed European agenda. Greece and Italy could seize on Macron’s sovereignty rhetoric to ask for stronger support in carrying the burden of migration at the steps of the Mediterranean. Central and Eastern European countries could engage Macron’s desire to rethink Europe’s security architecture, after the U.S. withdrawal from the INF treaty, by organizing a summit on the threats still posed by Russia and making clear their concerns over his attempt to engage Moscow. Instead of focusing on theological debates overs terms such as “strategic autonomy” or “European pillar of NATO”—neither of which mean the same thing in Paris and Warsaw—the debate could focus on developing actual capabilities and showing real solidarity.

France should itself take the lead here. If France thinks NATO is brain-dead, why doesn’t it send troops to Poland to show Europeans can step up to defend each other? France’s relationship with Estonia could be a good precedent. While Estonian troops serve in Mali to fight al Qaeda, 200 French troops are stationed in rotation in Estonia within NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence.

Such steps could help assuage one of the blind spots in the French vision: its treatment of Central and Eastern Europe. French presidents since the fall of communism have generally shown little empathy for the historical experience of the nations that the writer Milan Kundera once called the “kidnapped West.” Macron has tried to assuage these tensions but comes with the baggage of his predecessors. A visit to Poland or Slovakia shows leaders have not forgotten then-French President Jacques Chirac’s contemptuous Iraq War jab that they “missed a good opportunity to shut up.” Macron’s opening to Russia, a long-term gamble to break the current impasse with Moscow, risks playing into that category. In a strong speech in Prague last week, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian showed a shift in tone, reckoning that France had “to listen and understand” and that “different national memories must be at the heart of European integration.” Central European elites should read the speech as an invitation to engage.

Macron is right: The EU needs to seriously look at itself and prepare to compete in the new world. Amid rising international tensions, rising nationalist forces, and an increasingly vulnerable EU, denial is not an option. But the way forward can’t be a French vision of Europe or further unilateral measures. But to prevent that, others will have to step up. Presented with the choice between Berlin’s offer of stasis and Macron’s offer of disruption, Europeans should embrace the disruption and shape it.

Benjamin Haddad is the director of the Future Europe Initiative at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Le Paradis Perdu: l’Amérique de Trump et la fin des illusions européennes.