Written by Bruno Tertrais
Emmanuel Macron’s election as French president in May 2017 was celebrated by observers in France and around the world as a victory for pro-European liberalism over the wave of nationalist populism that had been sweeping across the continent in the decade following the global financial crisis.
As if to underscore that theme, at his post-election victory celebration in the courtyard of the Louvre, Macron’s campaign team distributed European Union flags to the young candidate’s supporters as the Ode to Joy, the EU’s anthem, played. In the early months and years of his presidency, Macron made clear that he planned to deepen European integration in tandem with Germany, and he further burnished his multilateral credentials on multiple occasions, presenting himself as a liberal internationalist foil to Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism.
It was somewhat jarring, then, to hear Macron declare three years later, as the coronavirus pandemic raged, that France “must take back control” of its strategic supply chains, including food supplies as well as products crucial to the country’s pandemic response. His echoing of a slogan used by British supporters of Brexit was not an anomaly. Macron now uses the word “sovereignty,” another buzzword popular with Brexiteers and nationalists across Europe, more frequently than any of his recent predecessors.
It isn’t the only way in which the hyperactive French president continues to surprise his domestic and foreign audiences. The “think-tanker-in-chief,” as Politico journalist Rym Momtaz dubbed him, is not shy when it comes to lengthy speeches and interviews, packed with ideas and concepts that often seem designed to provoke reaction and debate.
As Europe enters a new era after Brexit and the coming departure of longtime German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French president—who remains fairly popular and is thus well-placed to stay in power until 2027—will seek to leave his mark on the continent and the world. Four years into his first presidential term, can we understand any better what he wants?
A lot can be learned about Macron’s current thinking from interviews on foreign policy he has given in the past two years to The Economist, the Financial Times, Al Jazeera and Le Grand Continent. But they tell us little about how his worldview coalesced. Understanding the roots of his thinking on France’s role in the world will shed light on what he hopes to achieve.
The Two Pillars
Macron came to power with relatively little interest in diplomacy and rather unprepared to deal with foreign policy. He did have some experience of international affairs from his time as a presidential adviser and finance minister under his predecessor, Francois Hollande. But apart from discussing European affairs and making trips to Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon and Jordan, he paid very little attention to these issues during the 2017 campaign. Nor did he consult outside experts much, except for occasional meetings with old French diplomatic hands, such as former foreign minister Hubert Vedrine and veteran diplomat Gerard Araud. His international views may also have been shaped by Jacques Attali, an adviser to Francois Mitterrand turned author and entrepreneur, who made the young Macron a protégé of his in the 2000s.
It was Vedrine who inspired Macron to use the expression “gaullo-mitterrandisme”—a reference to Charles de Gaulle and Mitterrand, the two French presidents who left the greatest imprint on France’s Fifth Republic—as his proposed foreign policy template, for instance during the final presidential debate in May 2017. Though this framing is disputed in French policy circles, it refers to a tradition of “balance” and “dialogue” that was, according to this narrative, broken in 2007 by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, who allegedly aligned France with the United States by fully reintegrating France into the NATO command architecture and supporting U.S. military interventions in the Middle East.
Macron took office with the intention of closing that parenthesis. “With me,” he said in a 2017 interview, “it will be the end of a form of neoconservatism imported to France 10 years ago.” Democracy, he argued, cannot be “imposed from outside and without the people.” France was right not to participate in the Iraq War and wrong to do so in Libya. “What ended up being the product of these interventions?” he went on. “Failed states in which terrorist groups prosper. I don’t want this in Syria.”
With the world now confronted by “two different forms of hegemony”—one American, the other Chinese—Macron is keen to present France as a “mediating power everywhere.”
Although he no longer uses the expression “gaullo-mitterrandisme,” Macron does seem keen on following in the footsteps of his two most illustrious predecessors, whose mandates he has described as “two moments of very strong rupture in our contemporary history.” De Gaulle and Mitterrand comprise the two pillars of Macron’s personal presidential pantheon, and their impact is evident in his approach to French foreign policy.
Like De Gaulle, Macron thinks “in terms of France shining in the world,” as a close adviser put it. And though he rarely uses the word, he is probably attracted by the idea of “grandeur,” as Sophie Pedder, the veteran Paris correspondent for The Economist, notes. But he also believes that Europe, in its post-Cold War euphoria, blinded itself to the often tragic side of history. It now faces an unprecedented array of challenging crises, and finds itself “at an inflection point with the rise of China, the return of an aggressive Russia, and the retreat of America.”
With the world now confronted by “two different forms of hegemony”—one American, the other Chinese, according to Macron—he is keen to present France as a “mediating power everywhere.” This aspiration is particularly evident in the Middle East, where Macron has intervened to obtain the release of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri from informal detention in Saudi Arabia in 2017; organized several conferences on the Libyan civil war; conducted shuttle diplomacy between Iran and the United States in the corridors of a New York hotel during the 2019 United Nations General Assembly; and attempted to break Lebanon’s political impasse in 2020.
More broadly, he claims that France should not choose one “camp” over another in the region. Historians would argue that this is precisely the opposite of what Mitterrand and his neo-Gaullist successor, Jacques Chirac, did, as both solidly backed Sunni Arab regimes in the Middle East. And even Macron has not necessarily followed his own advice; in Libya, Paris ended up leaning toward one side in that country’s civil war—the faction of Gen. Khalifa Haftar—rather than maintaining any balance.
There are clearer echoes—some would say imitations—of both Mitterrand and Chirac in Macron’s flare for the dramatic: clashing with Israeli police in Jerusalem in 2019, exactly as Chirac did in 1996; and unexpectedly rushing to Beirut last year after the devastating port explosion, not unlike Mitterrand did in 1983 after the bombing of the military barracks housing French and American troops of the Multinational Force in Lebanon.
Like De Gaulle and Mitterrand, Macron is also fond of using historical pomp and symbols to add ballast, and at times sparkle, to his public appearances and speeches. He gave his election-night victory address in front of the Louvre’s Pyramid, a legacy of Mitterrand’s presidency; he hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Versailles Palace, and Trump atop the Eiffel Tower; he gave his two most important policy addresses on Europe in the Sorbonne in Paris and in front of the Parthenon in Athens. And on his trips abroad, he is always keen to visit historical landmarks, like the imperial city of Xian in China and the Taj Mahal in India.
But while De Gaulle, Mitterrand and to a lesser extent Chirac are all lodestars for Macron’s approach to and conduct of diplomacy, the real key to his political mindset may be found in a lesser-known French politician whose influence on Macron has not been widely reported.
The Missing Link
Enter 82-year-old Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a mild-mannered, retired Socialist elder statesman and the individual whose thinking may have exercised—and may still exercise—the strongest personal influence on Macron’s policy thinking. Chevenement first served as the minister of research and technology, then as education minister and finally as defense minister under Mitterrand. He was also homeland security minister under Chirac and was subsequently a respected senator until 2014.
A brief sketch of Chevenement’s political profile highlights the resemblance to Macron’s instincts and policy initiatives. He was a fan of De Gaulle and a staunch defender of France’s “republican values,” which combine a reverence for the state, secularism and the undifferentiated treatment of French citizens. His skepticism of NATO and opposition to military interventions in the Middle East led him to resign as Mitterrand’s defense minister in 1991 to protest France’s participation in the upcoming First Gulf War. Nonetheless, he was always a vocal advocate of being strong on defense and tough on security.
Chevenement has also had a long fascination with Russia, culminating in his 2012 appointment as France’s special representative to the country by then-Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius. He argues today that France should restore economic ties severed after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, but above all that it should steer an independent course when it comes to bilateral relations. “Vis-à-vis Russia,” he has said, “France cannot remain hostage to the diplomacy of the United States or of those neighboring countries which hate it—failing which its foreign policy would risk losing its singularity.” He also believes that what he calls “realism” should take precedence over the defense of human rights abroad in French foreign policy.
Macron first came into contact with Chevenement in 1998, at the age of 21, when he began to frequent meetings of Chevenement’s Mouvement des Citoyens, or Citizens’ Movement. He campaigned for Chevenement during the latter’s failed presidential bid in 2002, under a slogan—“Beyond the Left and Right”—that heralded Macron’s 2016 mantra of embodying “both the Right and the Left.” Macron’s political flirtation with Chevenement lasted only a few years, but as he himself put it in December 2020, “My intellectual construction and my trajectory owe a lot to Jean-Pierre Chevenement and a ‘republican’ way of thinking.”
And despite his relatively brief encounter with Chevenement’s movement, Macron has remained remarkably faithful to his mentor’s creed.
The young president was keen on establishing a close personal relationship with Trump for tactical reasons, and he takes a certain interest in the United States, a country he visited twice—in 2006 and 2014—before becoming president. But Macron shows no affection for America and does not see it as a model. “The United States of America loves freedom as much as we do, but they do not have our love of justice,” he said in 2017. Astute observers noted that in a major interview with Le Grand Continent last year, he never once uttered the word “trans-Atlantic,” a lapse no British, German or Polish prime minister would permit themselves.
Outside Europe, Macron hardly emphasizes the defense of democracy and human rights as a French foreign policy plank. He is at ease with authoritarian leaders and has explicitly refused to “give lessons” to repressive dictators like Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Although Macron met with the Dalai Lama in the early days of his presidential campaign in 2016, he refused to meet him again as president in 2018.
Russia is another key marker of the lasting imprint Chevenement left on Macron. Already in 2016, as finance minister, Macron had doubts as to the wisdom of EU sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea. Later, as president, he was keen to host Putin just weeks after the 2017 election, despite vicious anti-Macron propaganda spread by Russian state-backed media outlets throughout the campaign and a Russian hack of Macron’s campaign emails days before the vote. Both were part of a failed Russian effort to meddle in the election to the benefit of Macron’s far-right adversary, Marine Le Pen. Notably, Macron kept Chevenement on as special representative for Russia and included him in presidential delegations when visiting the country; it is Chevenement who delivered the invitation to Putin for a personal get-together in the presidential residence of Bregancon in August 2019, prior to the French-hosted G-7 Summit in Biarritz that summer.
Macron’s Russia reset is partly based on history and culture—he profoundly believes that Russia is part of Europe—but he has always presented it as interests-based. He believes that Moscow should be a key partner for Europe in the fight against terrorism and the management of regional crises. Most importantly, as he argued in an August 2019 speech to the French diplomatic corps, “pushing Russia away from Europe is a profound strategic mistake, because we are inciting it either to an isolation that increases tensions, or to an alliance with China, which would not at all be in our interest.” Hence his drive for a reinforced bilateral dialogue with Moscow aimed at building a new “European architecture of confidence and security.” A few months after hosting Putin in 2019, in the runup to the NATO Leaders Summit in London, he lamented what he saw as NATO’s Cold War mentality that still saw Russia as the enemy, and provocatively declared that the alliance was experiencing “brain death.”
Perhaps nowhere is Macron’s political inheritance from Chevenement more visible than in his insistence on the “state,” the “nation” and France’s “sovereignty.”
Another trait Macron inherited from Chevenement is his combative vision of laicite, the French brand of secularism, and his energetic defense of the “Republic,” a word that in France refers simultaneously to the country, its system of government and the values that have arisen around it. Macron began his presidential bid in the immediate aftermath of the Paris and Nice terrorist attacks, in 2015 and 2016 respectively, at a time when French voters viscerally felt that the Republic was under attack. When he proclaimed in his first speech as president to the French diplomatic corps that “the security of the French is … the raison d’être of our diplomacy,” and that “the fight against Islamist terrorism is the first priority of our foreign policy,” it was not hard to hear echoes of Chevenement.
Macron has now included the “organization of French Islam” as part of his effort to tackle “separatism,” extremism and radicalization among France’s Muslim minority. It would be surprising if he had never discussed the topic with Chevenement, who was the first chairperson of the Fondation de l’islam de France, or the Foundation for French Islam, a private but state-supported entity created in 2016 aimed at disseminating knowledge of Islamic culture. The same can be said regarding immigration.
Macron also shares with his mentor the combination of a strong belief in secularism with respect for religion. “One can live with republican principles in the midst of a Christian culture and civilization,” he said in a recent interview. Some have noted that certain otherwise puzzling aspects of his foreign policy—his admiration for Russia, his defense of Greece in its standoff with Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean and his sympathy for
Armenia—might be explained by these three countries’ deeply Christian roots.
Perhaps nowhere is Macron’s political inheritance from Chevenement more visible than in his insistence on the “state,” the “nation” and France’s “sovereignty,” a word he used no less than 26 times in a November 2020 interview. Today he wants the sovereignty principle to apply in particular to critical industrial resources and technologies, a well-worn Chevenement hobbyhorse, as if the COVID-19 crisis was an opportunity for Macron to channel his deepest political beliefs. But already as finance minister in 2015, Macron invoked Chevenement’s legacy with pride, stating that “in the era of globalization, one cannot escape reflecting about the State.” And he dropped a little-noticed hint in his 2019 address to the French diplomatic corps when he noted that “what Brexiteers proposed to the British people was a very good slogan: to take back control of our lives, of our nation.”
For all of these reasons, it is unlikely, as some have claimed, that Macron’s stances on some key policy issues, such as Russia and the threat posed by Islamist terrorism, are primarily driven by short-term electoral calculations. To the contrary, they appear to grow out of his core political beliefs—core beliefs that might be traceable to Chevenement.
While the pandemic has led Macron to channel his inner Chevenement, it would be incorrect to suggest that French foreign policy since 2017 has been entirely driven by his intellectual debt to his mentor. Chevenement probably frowned when he heard Macron the candidate, while on a visit to Algeria during the 2017 campaign, characterize French colonialism as a “crime against humanity” and “real barbarism.” Or when, as president, Macron said that “[being] a white man can be viewed as a privilege,” in a nod to the anti-racism movement currently gaining in importance in France, especially on the left.
On the critical issue of European integration, Chevenement never shared Macron’s enthusiasm at all. Nor has he been known to call for French leadership on climate change, biodiversity, health care or inequalities in development, all fronts on which Macron is increasingly active. This reflects changing times and a generational effect, as well as his personal background. Macron is also much more at ease with the world of finance, markets and global entrepreneurship than Chevenement ever was. If one was to look for intellectual anchors of Macron’s thinking on these issues, Attali, the former close adviser to Mitterrand, would be a much better reference.
Most importantly, Macron is too fiercely independent a person to rely entirely on the beliefs of political and intellectual mentors, past or present. He is his own man, something he demonstrates repeatedly with his displays of a preternatural self-confidence while seeking disruption, if not “Revolution,” the title of his 2016 campaign manifesto.
Thus, as much as Chevenement’s thinking remains a key template to understanding Macron’s policy instincts—and one we should expect him to double down on during the post-pandemic presidential campaign in the spring of 2022—it remains a partial and unsatisfying guideline for French diplomacy in the 21st century.
Nevertheless, over time, the practice of power and a succession of crises—the Yellow Vest protest movement, the coronavirus pandemic, recent terrorist attacks and tensions with Turkey over Ankara’s assertiveness in the Eastern Mediterranean—seem to have drawn Macron closer to his roots in Chevenement’s thinking than to the social-democratic inclinations that marked his political emergence.
Then again, as is often the case in France, there has been significant continuity between Macron’s diplomacy and that of his predecessors. Sanctions on Russia have been maintained, and diplomats still meet in the Normandy Format to try to implement the Minsk-2 agreements negotiated by Hollande. Defense cooperation with the United States has continued, and France’s attitude within the NATO Alliance is the same as before.
Macron has maintained his country’s traditional ties in the Middle East, from Morocco to Saudi Arabia, as well as a strong stance on the Iranian nuclear question. He even ended up bombing Syrian military facilities alongside the United States in April 2018 in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons against the civilian population, something Hollande had been willing to do in 2013, although he stood down after then-President Barack Obama’s last-minute U-turn. Macron also pursued France’s increased engagement in the Indo-Pacific region begun under Hollande.
But there is a mismatch between the ambitions announced by Macron in 2017, as well as the expectations created by his election, and the results of his foreign policy so far. To be clear, he can be proud of his EU record, which includes indisputable successes: Holding firm on Brexit negotiations with London, boosting European defense efforts and, most importantly, managing to pass—in cooperation with Merkel—the historic spending deal that resulted in the EU’s first collectivized debt mechanism to finance the pandemic recovery fund in the summer of 2020. He can also claim to have spearheaded a firm EU line against Turkey’s provocative behavior in the Eastern Mediterranean in the second part of 2020.
He has, however, failed to significantly “Europeanize” France’s military operations in the Sahel region, or to get any traction in his drive for a reform of the NATO alliance. The close, personal ties he nurtured with Trump for understandable tactical reasons brought few benefits: He did not succeed in mediating between Tehran and Washington to “improve” the Iran nuclear deal, let alone save it, and he felt betrayed when Trump unexpectedly announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in 2019. His renewed dialogue with Russia on European security has so far been a dead end, and Moscow hardly proved to be a constructive partner for France in Syria.
The “reconciliation” meetings between Libyan factions organized by Paris did not bring any long-standing resolution to that conflict. Macron’s brave attempt to reshuffle Lebanon’s political life after the dramatic August 2020 Beirut explosion has not borne fruit. And despite co-chairing with Russia and the United States the Minsk Group created in 1992 to mediate a resolution to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, France was sidelined in the latest round of fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan in that conflict.
“We have to rebuild a collective narrative, a collective dream. That is the reason why I very deeply believe that our project should be seen as a European civilization project.”
One of the explanations behind these limited successes is that French diplomacy under Macron, even more than that of his predecessors, continues to suffer from a dichotomy that is close to an insurmountable contradiction: on the one hand, a legitimate desire to play an independent role on the global scene, backed by its permanent U.N. Security Council membership, a presence on all continents, and a strong and capable nuclear-armed military; on the other, the genuine willingness to pursue EU integration and to “Europeanize” French policies as much as possible.
This is a tension that Macron has been even less able to solve than his predecessors, as witnessed by his constant hesitations on the meaning of “sovereignty.” Should it be French? Could it be European? But this may be the price of trying to be both De Gaulle, who prized French sovereign autonomy above all, and Mitterrand, who saw the opportunities offered by a more integrated Europe. Macron seems to want to transpose the Gaullist mythology to the European level: “We have to rebuild a collective narrative, a collective dream,” he said in his 2019 speech to the French diplomatic corps. “That is the reason why I very deeply believe that our project should be seen as a European civilization project.”
This is not a project that all citizens and leaders of the continent strive for, and the advent of President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will make more than one European political leader prefer the comfort of the old trans-Atlantic partnership to a French-led geopolitical adventure based on “strategic autonomy.” Macron may think he needs another five years to convince his European partners to go down that road, and he will try to take advantage of the French presidency of the EU in the first half of 2022 to advance this agenda, even though it will take place during the French presidential campaign.
Perhaps to truly understand Macron, it helps to recognize that all of his seeming contradictions are a feature, not a bug. In his speeches, he is notoriously fond of detailing the arguments supporting one side of a thorny policy issue, then punctuating that defense with “en même temps”—French for “at the same time”—before launching into a full-throated defense of the other side. His critics, and at times even his supporters, have pointed to this habit as evidence of Macron’s lack of any fundamental political convictions. But according to one of his former Jesuit mentors, Macron’s “at the same time” expresses “not a lack of positioning but a search for balance.” Macron, he added, “is obsessed with that.”
Bruno Tertrais is the deputy director of the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (Foundation for Strategic Research). He was a member of the 2007 and 2012 presidential commissions on the White Paper on Defense and National Security.