Anatol Lieven – Macron’s strategy: A ‘Gaullist’ betrayal of de Gaulle

If he is not careful, the French president is going to back himself into a dangerous little corner in Ukraine

Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London

Cross-posted from Responsible Statecraft


President Emmanuel Macron is pursuing an old Gaullist dream: a militarily and geopolitically autonomous Europe under the leadership of France.

The present strategy by which Macron is pursuing this goal is to present France as the military vanguard of Europe in the defense of Ukraine, through the suggestion that French and other NATO troops could be sent to that country:

“There is no consensus today to send ground troops in an official, accepted and endorsed manner,” he declared after a summit of European leaders in February. “But in dynamics, nothing should be excluded. We will do everything necessary to ensure that Russia cannot win this war.”

When this idea was immediately rejected by other NATO governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, Macron doubled down rhetorically by accusing the Germans and others of cowardice.

Some have dismissed this as mere cosplay, Macron dressing up as de Gaulle, just as British politicians are incapable of resisting the temptation to pretend to be Churchill. Others have suggested that it is chiefly motivated by domestic politics. Faced with a steep rise in support for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National), which traditionally sympathized with Putin, Macron is hoping to damage and isolate it by emphasizing the threat from Russia.

These analyses have some truth to them, but also underestimate the seriousness of Macron’s aim and Europe’s position. His dream has deep roots in French history and culture, and also corresponds in certain respects to the Europe’s real needs,

Unfortunately — and perhaps, God forbid, tragically— the strategy by which Macron is seeking to achieve his goal is to a considerable degree directly contrary to the goal itself, as well as being completely contrary to de Gaulle’s own ideas. It is a military and military-industrial strategy unaccompanied by adequate armed forces, or a real military-industrial base or political strategy, not to mention domestic political support.

In the words of Jean de Gliniastry, a former French ambassador to Moscow:

“There is a message, a warning to the Russians, while remaining ambiguous…[But] you have to walk on both legs: the military aspect and the diplomatic aspect. And for now, I don’t see the latter.”

Macron stated that Russia must not “win” the war; but, like all the other leaders of NATO, he has never defined what he means by this. Perhaps he means fighting Russia to a standstill followed by a compromise peace. In private conversations, however, French officials simply echo the U.S. line that only the Ukrainians can make peace — and the Ukrainian terms for peace require not a stalemate, but the complete military defeat of Russia.

The need for Europe to develop a capacity for self-defense should be obvious. Having nailed themselves to the Biden administration, European governments have very belatedly woken up to the realization that the next president may well be Donald Trump, and that the U.S. commitment to Europe may radically diminish. Indeed, given U.S. problems at home and in the Middle East, plus growing tension with China, this commitment is likely to diminish in future whether or not Trump is elected.

However, Macron’s hope that the supposed threat from Russia will prompt Europe to unite militarily behind French leadership vastly exaggerates both French military power and European willingness to follow France’s lead. After years of budget cuts, the French army is far too weak to intervene in Ukraine without full U.S. support. When in 2011 President Nicolas Sarkozy of France tried to take the lead in the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, within a very few weeks he was begging an unwilling President Obama to take over the operation on behalf of NATO, for fear of a humiliating Anglo-French failure.

In terms of appealing to other European countries, Macron’s hawkish stance on Ukraine is targeting East European partners. These governments, however, are precisely the countries with the most deeply-rooted determination to opposeEuropean strategic autonomy and maintain until the bitter end the closest possible alliance with the United States.

As Macron has himself stated, long-term European strategic autonomy also depends on a huge growth of Europe’s military-industrial base. This however depends on the full participation of Europe’s industrial powerhouse, Germany. Quite apart from German unwillingness to accept French leadership, the German economy is faltering and even facing “deindustrialization”, in part because of the end of cheap Russian energy as a result of the war and Western sanctions.

If the German industrial economy steeply declines, it will wreck Europe’s ability to develop an adequate military-industrial base. It is also likely to produce social and political anxiety, gravely undermining Germany’s role as a pillar of the European Union and European democracy. And far from leading to support for European strategic autonomy, fear of Russia has already driven Germany into even greater dependence on the United States.

When it comes to whipping up French domestic fear of Russia, the danger for Macron is that it will not work, and the danger for France, Europe, and the world is that it will. At present, polls show French public opinion opposed to direct intervention in Ukraine by a margin of almost three to one. This suggests that should Macron actually send troops to Ukraine, there will be a tremendous public backlash against him. Barring nuclear war, very few people in France feel truly under threat from Russia.

The risk of course is that all of his efforts to generate fear will lead Macron to be trapped by his own propaganda. If Russia does break through the Ukrainian lines and advance rapidly, he will either have to confess his own and France’s impotence in the face of a supposedly mortal Russian threat — or actually send French troops to Ukraine.

Russian commentators have stated categorically that if French or any other NATO troops are deployed in Ukraine, they will be attacked. Meanwhile, a limited deployment of French troops would not stop (though they might slow down) an overwhelming Russian advance. France would then have to either accept a qualified defeat and peace on Russian terms, or beg for U.S. intervention — at which point we would be heading rapidly towards nuclear annihilation.

Perhaps the oddest thing about Macron’s position, and that of the French establishment, is that, while it derives from de Gaulle’s dream of European leadership, it completely misunderstands — or betrays — de Gaulle’s vision. The General, it may be remembered, withdrew France from NATO’s military structures in protest against Washington’s refusal to inform France about U.S. nuclear forces on French soil. He sought an independent French role in international affairs, and, as part of this, sought détente with the Soviet Union and spoke of Europe “from the Atlantic to The Urals.”

De Gaulle’s hopes in this regard were frustrated by the iron constraints of the Cold War. When de Gaulle was president, Soviet tank armies were stationed in central Germany, less than 200 miles from the French border. In principle at least, the Soviet Union was dedicated to a revolutionary ideology that threatened everything de Gaulle stood for: at the time Moscow supported a large and powerful French Communist Party.

Today, the nearest Russian forces are nearly a thousand miles from France’s borders, and both Soviet Communism and the French Communist Party are long dead. It seems overwhelmingly probable, therefore, that instead of lining up with the U.S. against Russia, de Gaulle would have grasped the opportunity for France to take the lead in ensuring European peace by seeking compromise with Moscow.

After all, when de Gaulle fought as a French soldier in the First World War, it was as an ally of the Russian Empire against Germany.

Sophia Ampgkarian contributed to the research for this article.

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