Macron’s inexperience means he needs to reassure the electorate that he can manage the national security state.
This article is an accompaniment to an earlier piece on Marine Le Pen's bait-and-switch foreign policy, by the same authors.
Emmanuel Macron, according to the some of the more hyperbolic press, is all that stands between us and the end of Western civilisation. In the wake of the UK’s decision to leave the EU and Donald Trump’s election, a populist President in France would mean three strikes and the liberal world order is out. It is apocalyptic thinking, but it captures the current mood and places a greater than usual weight on an untested presidential candidate. Nonetheless, those outside the country know little about him in terms of how he sees France’s place in the world or how he would drive French foreign policy.
In fairness, it is not clear that there is much to know. Macron has little experience or record in foreign policy. Most French politicians climb the greasy pole of French policymaking for two or three decades before they make much of a stir. Macron, in contrast, is 39 years old and has little experience in policymaking. He has never been elected to office, he only entered politics (as an advisor to President Hollande) about five years ago, and his only political job was a brief stint as Minister of the Economy from 2014-2016.
In France, foreign policy is central to national identity, and the president has extensive authority on defence matters. So Macron’s inexperience means he needs to reassure the electorate that he can manage the national security state. Perhaps for this reason, Macron has attached himself to a key member of Hollande’s governments - minister of defence Jean-Yves Le Drian. He has also explicitly rested his foreign policy on the so-called “Gaullo-Mitterrandist consensus”, i.e. the foreign policy wisdom handed down by two former French presidents: Charles De Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand.
Following those examples, Macron does not spend much time on the “soft” foreign policy issues that are trendy on the centre-left, such as global governance and development assistance. During the campaign, Macron, whose background is in economic issues, has increasingly placed an emphasis on security, articulating a willingness to act forcefully abroad to defend French interests. This hard-nosed approach helps convey the sense that Macron is no callow youth.
More specifically, Macron has laid down a foreign policy programme that seeks to be similarly solid and serious. As usual for candidates, the programme is far from fully formed; it is long on rhetoric and short on hard choices. But it is possible to see beyond the rhetoric three basic conceptual pillars from which all else flows:
Macron has a vision of the world in which rapid change and ever denser interconnections are the only constants. France, for all its proud history and record of achievements, cannot simply shut itself off from the world and wish away the changes swirling around it. Moreover, withdrawing from the world would contradict France’s identity as a country with ambitions to shape the global arena. Instead, it must find a way to remain open and to thrive.
There is optimism in this worldview: Macron sees "a world of threats and opportunities." France has considerable assets—a dynamic population, a strong export sector, international status, and a powerful military. These assets mean that France’s decline can be reversed. But this is possible only if a French leader can both motivate the necessary reforms to France’s domestic structures and preserve the kind of openness from which France will gain strength.
This faith in France and in the value of openness translates into a clear, universalist message. Macron sees a France which is open to trade and investment. It is open because it has the capacity to absorb and benefit from such flows, and to enforce the rules of the road and insist on reciprocity from its major partners. Even when it comes to refugees, which many in France see as a burden, Macron sees an “economic opportunity” for France and Europe. This faith in open borders extends beyond economic arguments, with Macron also refusing to close the door on Turkish membership in the EU.
Macron also values France’s place in key multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organisation. He wants France to shape the international context, not merely survive it. As he put it, “We have to be aggressive on the trade agenda, to promote our own collective preferences. We don’t want to be submitted to the American or the Chinese decisions.”
Macron’s optimistic yet competitive approach to openness hints at the second pillar of his foreign approach: independence. Independence is a traditional French foreign policy virtue and a characteristic of nearly every French leader and presidential candidate since De Gaulle. Macron’s repeated “Gaullo-Mitterrandist” pledge on foreign policy is clearly meant to reassure the voters of his commitment to this sacrosanct principle. Accordingly, Macron celebrates the traditional tenets of French independence: autonomy of decision-making, the nuclear deterrent, and a certain scepticism toward American power and European deference towards Washington. In classic Gaullist terms, he warned against “those who have the habit of waiting for solutions to their problems from across the Atlantic”.
Every major candidate in the election paid homage to the idea of independence. But Macron takes a particular approach that sees French sovereign autonomy as compatible and, indeed, reliant upon cooperation with others. For him, “independence is not solitude. The isolation to which some of my opponents want to reduce France is not in our national interest.”
Far from a constraint on French independence, France’s alliances and cooperative relationships - particularly its membership of the EU - are key to maintaining French sovereignty. This is especially true for him if France aims at not only better protecting its interests, but profiting from global opportunities and retaining some influence on world events. Macron doesn’t accept that NATO is the main determinant of France’s status on the global stage. His vision of independence rests more on further integration in European defence, which he sees as key for Europe to “hold its destiny in its own hands”.
Contrary to the Euroscepticism adopted by many European politicians, Macron optimistically articulates a role for France in Europe that enhances rather than reduces its sovereignty. But, in Macron’s view, there is no question that the EU needs reform. In his words, the Brexit decision by UK voters “held up a mirror to the EU” and reflected a more broadly held view that the EU is both “dysfunctional and highly uninspiring.”
But despite the dysfunctions, for Macron the idea of fighting terrorism or competing with China without EU partners makes no sense. Sovereignty for Macron is not the far-right delusion of complete independence, rather “sovereignty means the capacity of acting in concrete terms to protect ourselves and defend our values.” Macron thus promotes the idea of a “Europe of sovereignty” that enhances France’s independence by giving it the means, through cooperation with European partners, to defend French interests.
The final pillar is ambiguity. Of course, ambiguity is not generally a concept that figures prominently in foreign policy programmes, nor does Macron mention it. But it has obvious political value.
Macron has been willing to take some bold stances, such as on Europe or in support of air strikes in Syria. But on most foreign policy issues he has either embraced continuity or revelled in ambiguity to an extent that is unusual for French presidential candidates. He has been mostly silent on the issue of Trump, on relations with China and Russia, on questions of overseas development assistance, and on the strategy for fighting ISIS.
Admittedly, the debate during the campaign has forced Macron to come out more clearly on a few topics. In particular, he has confirmed that he wouldn’t support lifting sanctions against Russia until Russia met its obligations in Ukraine. On Syria, he stressed his differences with Hollande’s policy rather than proposing a clear strategy. He has insisted that it was a mistake to make Assad’s departure a precondition for negotiations, given that France is “totally isolated on this position”. But Macron also holds that that those who insist on Assad’s continued rule make “a diplomatic and moral mistake”, because that position “would eventually lead us to compromise and discuss with a bloody dictator.
But the larger pattern has been to avoid specifics. Pundits have often mocked Macron’s tendency to equivocate during the campaign, particularly his constant use of the phrase “and at the same time”. Macron insists that he only wants to acknowledge the complexity of France’s problems. But on foreign policy, some of his ambiguities have more to do with keeping his options open. He has often insisted more on the principles of his foreign policy than on substance: he has often mentioned his ambition for France to be a "power of balance and dialogue", his desire for a “clear and resolute diplomacy”, or his plan to hold a “realist and demanding discussion” with its partners, without offering many specifics.
This is not necessarily because Macron has no view. Rather, it reflects that fact that Macron’s youth and inexperience are on a certain level his main selling points. Like Barack Obama in 2008, he is not burdened by past decisions or unfortunate associations with now discredited positions. He has not supported or opposed controversial wars; he has never been involved in a corruption scandal; and he has never said a kind word about Vichy France or promoted Islamophobia.
Macron is rather an empty vessel into which large swathes of the electorate can pour their hopes and dreams about what France could be. This makes Macron’s policy difficult to predict, but he would have been foolish to give up his ambiguity. The optimism that Macron inspires and personifies flows in part from this lack of specificity.
Macron presents a starkly different vision for foreign policy than his opponent, Marine Le Pen. Both promote the traditional idea of an independent France that commands its own destiny. But for Macron, independence is somewhat paradoxically achieved through interdependence and international cooperation. His preferred partners are those with whom France has formed enduring bonds and who offer France the chance to magnify its waning relative power through like-minded cooperation. This means workings first and foremost with Germany and France’s other EU partners, but also with a United States that is (hopefully) committed to the transatlantic alliance and to universal values.
But the world is not waiting for France to make its choice. Immediately after taking office, the next president of France will face a daunting array of ever-mutating challenges—an eroding world order, reluctant European partners, an aggressive Russia, an unstable Africa, and a deeply unpredictable America. He or she will have only a fragile domestic consensus and fairly limited national means to deal with these challenges.
A president, Macron will have to face those reality tests with limited experience and expertise. The world will quickly challenge his tendency toward ambiguity. He won’t be the first to seek a “demanding dialogue” with Putin’s Russia without obtaining results. His bold views on human rights, whether on Syria, Saudi Arabia, China, Russia or the US will quickly meet realpolitik concerns. His reluctance to act militarily without a realistic exit strategy might be called to question if a jihadist threat suddenly emerges in Europe’s neighbourhood as it did in Mali in 2013. Perhaps most fundamentally, Macron’s insistence on reforming the EU through working and compromising with Germany will face opposition within the rest of the European Union and test his ability to build coalitions in Europe around the Franco-German core.
Still, it is clear that Macron, for all of his inexperience and ambiguities, is offering France a more mature alternative than Le Pen. She offers only the comfortable delusion that France can insulate itself from outside influences, maintain its identity and security, and still prosper in the modern world. Trump and Brexit campaigners sold a similar tale to American and British voters. Macron, by contrast, seeks to more confidently leverage France’s strengths through its alliance relationships to help build a Europe and a world in which France can thrive. It is no easy task of course, but in a hyper-connected, ever-changing world, it is the only path forward.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.