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How France Can Avoid Being Reduced to a Symbolic Power

After AUKUS, the French face the same fate on the world stage as the British unless they pursue EU strategic autonomy led from Brussels rather than Paris.

By , a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.
French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a military ceremony.
French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a military ceremony before the official launch of a new French nuclear submarine built by Naval Group at the French naval base in Cherbourg, France, on July 12, 2019. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP via Getty Images

France got a bitter lesson in the realities of geopolitics last week when the United States and Australia, with the United Kingdom tagging along, signed the AUKUS security agreement. Its public centerpiece is Australia’s resulting decision to cancel a French submarine contract and replace it with a U.S. one (or, in the British press nostalgic for great power status, an “Anglo-American” one). But strategic calculations about China were decisive for Canberra.

France has more than 1.5 million citizens in the Indo-Pacific region, mainly in New Caledonia and Réunion. These territories are politically integrated with Paris, like Hawaii is with Washington. French security agreements with Australia (of which the sale of submarines was one) were part of the Paris’s efforts to secure those territories in an increasingly militarized Asian environment.

But things have changed in the Pacific. The French-Australian submarine agreement was concluded in 2016 during the presidency of François Hollande. At the time, France and Australia both wanted enthusiastic engagement with China, in order to exploit the growing Chinese market. In the last two years, however, Australia’s position has shifted radically. Pushed by aggressive diplomacy from Chinese President Xi Jinping, including a recent boycott of Australian wine, Canberra has seen no alternative but to confront its northern neighbor.

France got a bitter lesson in the realities of geopolitics last week when the United States and Australia, with the United Kingdom tagging along, signed the AUKUS security agreement. Its public centerpiece is Australia’s resulting decision to cancel a French submarine contract and replace it with a U.S. one (or, in the British press nostalgic for great power status, an “Anglo-American” one). But strategic calculations about China were decisive for Canberra.

France has more than 1.5 million citizens in the Indo-Pacific region, mainly in New Caledonia and Réunion. These territories are politically integrated with Paris, like Hawaii is with Washington. French security agreements with Australia (of which the sale of submarines was one) were part of the Paris’s efforts to secure those territories in an increasingly militarized Asian environment.

But things have changed in the Pacific. The French-Australian submarine agreement was concluded in 2016 during the presidency of François Hollande. At the time, France and Australia both wanted enthusiastic engagement with China, in order to exploit the growing Chinese market. In the last two years, however, Australia’s position has shifted radically. Pushed by aggressive diplomacy from Chinese President Xi Jinping, including a recent boycott of Australian wine, Canberra has seen no alternative but to confront its northern neighbor.

Under its hawkish Defense Minister Peter Dutton, Australia has, with good reason, seen the United States as a more reliable security partner than France. Washington has far greater capacity, and Australia already has a close relationship with the U.S. Air Force and intelligence community through the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing agreement. Washington is also far more determined to confront Beijing, as it has concluded China is a threat to the U.S.-led international order and key U.S. allies in Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.

For Australia, changing submarine suppliers and canceling a deal with the more ambivalent France is a price worth paying for greater strategic cover—even if it probably delays the supply of actual submarines (and even if it remains unclear how effective those submarines are at the limit of their operational range).

Simply put, the Americans pushed France out of the way as they push other middle-sized powers when their national interest dictates, such as Britain and Germany during the Afghanistan withdrawal.

France is now mobilizing itself in pique against Australia, hinting it might block an EU-Australia trade agreement. (The Quai d’Orsay is too sensible to go on a full scale attack against the United States, so it has limited itself to canceling some celebrations and dinners.) But though it persuaded European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to weigh in, France can’t count on full EU support. Germany and Poland, in particular, don’t want to upset transatlantic ties over this.

The root of the problem is France’s inability to accept that in foreign policy, just like in other areas, it has become a middle-sized power. The days of Gaullist foreign policy and Paris being able to act alone on the great-power stage are over. French European Commissioner Thierry Breton called for a “reset” in “broken” transatlantic relations, but it is French foreign policy, not transatlantic relations, that needs reexamination.

France must accept that, though it can act more or less on its own in Central Africa, it’s too small and too far away to have much of a chance in Asia.

The good news for France, unlike its fellow shrunken power Britain, is that it has options. For as long as anyone can remember, Paris has sought to turn Europe’s foreign policy into an extension of France’s. It has partly failed because of British and U.S. opposition, but Britain has left the EU and the United States now understands that its interests are better served by a Europe that can look after itself. But “strategic autonomy,” as European defense independence is known, still faces powerful opposition from Eastern European states that, like the Australians, think the Americans are far more likely to come to their aid than the French.

France had been able to play a somewhat ambiguous role in both Eastern Europe and Asia, offering some support for Western democratic allies while still exploiting commercial relationships with Russia and China (it was only the invasion of Ukraine that stopped France’s sale of the advanced amphibious assault ship Mistral to Russia). But Chinese and Russian aggression means allies now prefer the stronger, if not necessarily more reliable, Americans.

If France is not to be reduced, as Britain was, to a symbolic power on the world stage, it needs to choose. The solution is to take European strategic autonomy seriously. This means being a full member of the Western alliance, driven by Western values. But Paris must start with the understanding that Europe, not France, is the autonomous subject.

Instead of employing a strategy to merely cloak taking Europe in a French direction, France needs to become the basis for a genuinely European, independent foreign and security policy. The end result will be greater French influence in areas that matter particularly to France, such as Africa and Southeast Asia—but it means compromising with other European countries on areas of lesser French interest, such as Russia.

This is, of course, the original bargain of European integration applied to defense and foreign affairs. It involves pooling resources so that everyone’s main objectives can be fulfilled and centralizing policymaking at the European Commission to ensure this is done (unlike today’s foreign policy, in which member states bicker and delay to the very end). As with trade, a centralized European foreign and defense policy could matter in Asia, whereas individual states, even France, can be pushed around.

The good news for France, unlike its fellow shrunken power Britain, is that it has options.

The catch is that this is feasible only if Poland, essential to any European defense against Russia, can be brought on board. French indifference to the Eastern European region has not been forgotten by Poles, of course, who are still liable to point out that France ignored its own treaty obligation to actively join the fight against Germany in 1939. Nor do they forget France’s opposition to EU enlargement. Poles with particularly long memories will remember Henry, duke of Anjou, who left his Polish throne in 1574 to become king of France.

Should Macron be reelected next year, France needs to propose a grand bargain. If Europe is to be sufficiently unified to plot a middle way between the United States and China, it needs to ensure Eastern Europe’s needs are met. This will mean big changes to European foreign policy.

The bargain will require canceling Nord Stream 2 and building institutional structures to prevent Western Europe making a “separate peace” with Russia. It will mean folding the European External Action Service into the European Commission and having foreign-policy decisions taken by qualified majority vote to prevent hostage-taking by small, Russia and China-suborned countries such as Hungary.

France (and Germany too) will find many of these changes uncomfortable, but they could give birth to a European Gaullism to replace a national Gaullism whose time has run out.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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