Paul Taylor is Friends of Europe Fellow, Author of Friends of Europe report “Crunch time: France and the future of European defence” and European Affairs Editor at Politico
Much has changed since France elected Emmanuel Macron as president in May, but a lot has stayed the same.
As predicted in the Friends of Europe report on France and the future of European defence published in April, Macron has expressed a strong desire to pursue European defence integration, both through the European Union’s institutions and via bilateral cooperation with Germany. He has reaffirmed France’s commitment to NATO, including the integrated military structure, strong bilateral strategic cooperation with the United States (even under the erratic Donald Trump), an active role in international security and achieving NATO’s two per cent defence spending guideline by 2024. However, his first steps in office have told a rather different story.
One of Macron’s first moves was to shunt widely admired Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian off to the foreign ministry ‒ a promotion in cabinet rank only ‒ and to clear out the powerful team that had helped Le Drian deliver growth in the defence budget and a pipeline of equipment modernisation. Casualties included the head of the arms procurement agency. They had fallen foul of the powerful finance ministry by extracting spending increases badly needed by the severely overstretched armed forces.
The new president’s first pick as defence minister, former MEP Sylvie Goulard, was a committed European integrationist and a strong Germanophile, but by her own admission no expert on defence. Some saw this as a signal that Macron wanted to take defence into his own hands. Others saw it as a deliberate downgrading of what was renamed ‘the ministry of the armies’. Goulard began by building strong ties to her German opposite number, Ursula von der Leyen, and telling the top brass and the defence industry she expected them to make European cooperation, especially with Germany, their top priority. By all accounts, she met some resistance, notably from the military-industrial complex.
Macron has expressed a strong desire to pursue European defence integration
Goulard lasted only a few weeks before resigning due to a probe into her centrist MODEM party’s alleged abuse of European Parliament funds ‒ earmarked for MEPs’ assistants but used to pay Paris headquarters staff. She was replaced by Florence Parly, a former Socialist junior budget minister, who knew even less about defence or EU integration, but had a track-record as a cost-cutter.
Far from increasing the defence budget, the government announced in July it would slash €800m in military spending from the 2017 budget ‒ a reduction of more than two-and-a-half per cent in mid-year and the largest cut in any ministry ‒ as part of a drive to meet its commitment to bring the deficit below three per cent of GDP.
When the chief of staff for the armed forces, General Pierre de Villiers, voiced anger behind closed doors to parliament’s defence committee and his barrack-room language was leaked to the media, Macron rebuked him publicly in a speech at a Bastille Day eve military reception, saying: “I am your chief.” De Villiers resigned the following week and was replaced by a general willing to implement the cut, largely by delaying equipment purchases. Confidence within the armed forces was at low ebb. The President drew criticism, notably from conservative media, prompting him to promise that defence spending would be the only post to rise in the 2018 budget, and to reaffirm his pledge to the medium-term two per cent goal.
Eager for action-man photo opportunities, Macron visited French troops in Mali, and made clear that Paris would maintain its Operation Barkhane against Islamist fighters across the Sahel region, as well as its active bombing and special forces role in the anti-ISIS coalition in Syria and Iraq.
Macron was winched from a helicopter onto a nuclear submarine where he stated his commitment to maintaining and modernising France’s nuclear deterrent. He said he would review and adapt Operation Sentinelle ‒ the military presence on French streets to guard public buildings, reassure the public and deter terrorist attacks. But the continued attacks by lone wolf Islamist militants make it hard to reduce the level of alert or take many troops off the streets.
Four months into Macron’s presidency, the gap between high ambitions and the reality of actions yawns wide
A joint Franco-German cabinet meeting in July endorsed ambitious plans both for launching ‘permanent structured cooperation’ (PESCO) on defence in the EU by the end of the year and for a range of armaments cooperation initiatives. Paris and Berlin pledged to develop a joint next generation fighter aircraft, as well as to cooperate on a main battle tank, drones and other weapons systems. Such far-reaching projects have been aborted or come to grief in the past, but there does appear to be political momentum behind this renewed effort, not least because neither country can afford to develop such major systems on its own any more.
Macron’s rhetorical commitment to work with European allies was however swiftly contradicted by some of his first diplomatic and industrial initiatives. He summoned the rival leaders of Libya’s feuding factions to talks in France without involving Italy, the former colonial power in the North African state and the main recipient of refugees flooding unchecked across the Mediterranean from its shores, or Germany, the ultimate destination of many migrants. The President also announced his intention of nationalising the STX shipyard, which builds warships as well as cruise liners, to prevent it falling under the control of an Italian company. This was seen in Rome, and elsewhere in the EU, as an anti-European act of economic nationalism.
Four months into Macron’s presidency, the gap between high ambitions for European cooperation and the reality of spending cuts and headline-grabbing unilateral actions yawns wide. Things may settle down once the president feels he has asserted his authority at home and on the European stage. The real strategic and industrial choices lie ahead. Macron will need to be more consistent in walking the walk of European cooperation, and making the French defence establishment and military industries walk with him, if the Franco-German EU defence initiative is to bear fruit and not produce more disappointment.
- Crunch time - France and the future of European defence, by Paul Taylor
- Our event on 6 September: Crunch time - France and the future of European defence
IMAGE CREDIT: CC/Flickr – The White House