France's response to the Ukraine crisis has been more active and more determined than many would have predicted, but with ongoing operations in Africa and the Middle East it should be careful not to overstretch itself
France's response to the Ukraine crisis has been more active and more determined than many would have predicted. Paris, together with Berlin, has ended up leading European efforts to resolve the conflict in the Donbas through the “Normandy Format”, which eventually led to the Minsk Agreements. Paris also supported the EU’s policy on sanctions, suspended its annual bilateral strategic meetings with Moscow and cancelled the delivery of its Mistral warships to Russia.
France’s involvement in pushing forward sanctions run counter to its previous efforts at developing economic relations with Russia. What’s more, France now finds itself committing its diplomatic resources to a region that is traditionally absent from its foreign policy radar, and at a time when threats emanating from some of its usual zones of focus – in Middle East and Africa - are particularly acute. Such a response from France was, above all, prompted by the nature and magnitude of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
To what extent was this crisis and the French response to it a one-off? How would France be affected and react if, as hypothesised in Russia 2030: A story of great power dreams and small victorious wars, Russia increasingly pursues an adventurist and unpredictable foreign policy, manufacturing crises in its neighbourhood and beyond to prop-up its domestic legitimacy? The scenarios painted would probably not have a direct impact on France’s vital interests but could affect its strategic interests or, more precisely, its ability to pursue them, notably by limiting its room for manoeuvre in the EU and NATO. In other words, France’s responses will be more influenced by the EU context and by broader trends in its own foreign policy rather than by Russia’s actions in the Eastern neighbourhood.
Trends in French policy towards Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood
Several trends are likely to affect French policies towards Russia and the Eastern neighbourhood in the coming decade and beyond.
Firstly, France has responded to an international environment characterised by structural instabilities and growing US strategic disengagement by pursing a more activist and interventionist foreign policy. It has intervened in Libya, Mali, and the Central African Republic, conducted military operations across the Sahel (Barkhane), and demonstrated diplomatic activism on the Iran and, recently, Israel-Palestine dossiers. This means that France will need to avoid overstretching itself, especially as it is also relying on the military to patrol the streets in the fight against terrorism at home. Paris may be reluctant to divert its limited resources for crisis management in areas that it regards as less of a strategic priority (such as Central Asia or the Caucasus).
At the same time, France’s foreign policy activism is largely pursued within the EU and NATO. Paris therefore has to factor in the strategic concerns of its Eastern allies by, for instance, participating in collective exercises in their region. It might also launch its own call for solidarity, as it did when activating the mutual defence clause of the Lisbon Treaty after the Paris attacks (a call which has had a mixed response from EU member states). The factors that prompted France’s interventionist foreign policy are likely to endure, but the scope of the policies themselves could be tempered if France comes to find itself embroiled in an Iraq-like quagmire.
Secondly, since the terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015, the domestic debate on the designation of the ‘overarching enemy’ and the prioritisation of threats has been mounting: some have argued that France should concentrate on the fight against ISIS, which involves re-thinking its alliance system in the Middle East and cooperating more closely with Russia. However, in the case of Syria, the idea of a 'Grand Coalition' soon fell by the wayside as Paris and Moscow have radically divergent readings of the conflict. They have no common ally on the ground, and might have a common enemy, ISIS, but not one that has been Russia's primary target. Therefore, cooperation will probably be confined to avoiding “friendly fire” and to the exchange of intelligence on jihadist groups. Even if this cooperation over Middle East issues comes to be more substantive, it is unlikely to affect Paris’ positions on other dossiers such as Ukraine.
Thirdly, the economic component of the Franco-Russian relationship has clearly taken precedence over the political one, which both sides felt was bringing few benefits and had become potentially costly to France in the EU context. A further deterioration of the economic situation in Russia might slow this trend but is unlikely to reverse it.
Fourthly, French policies towards Russia have been increasingly “Europeanised”. France’s membership of the EU and its bilateral relationship with Germany plays a key role in the formulation of its foreign policy strategy towards Russia. The decision by the Elysée to cancel the sale of the Mistral warships epitomises this trend. It carried a political, economic and financial cost, and so was opposed by various domestic actors, but sent a strong message to its European partners and beyond. This delivery had become untenable as some of France's partners felt directly threatened by the militarisation of Russia's foreign policy. The decision also illustrates the changing views in Paris and the different readings made of the 2008 Georgia war and of the Ukraine crisis of 2014: the Mistral deal was initiated after the former and cancelled after the latter. So, major changes in the EU such as a radical shift in Germany's Russia policy, Brexit, or Poland finding itself paralysed by a political crisis do have the potential to affect France’s policies.
Fifthly, French foreign policy will also be influenced by domestic debates. French foreign policy elites, the mainstream media and public opinion are overall critical of Russia’s policies while several members of the political class and of the business community are more favourable to Moscow. Although these stances vary across the political spectrum and are rarely determined in official party lines, pro-Russian voices are mainly found in far-left and far-right populist parties and in the main opposition party, Les Républicains (LR). In that sense, political change is probably one of the main domestic factors to consider in speculating on France’s future stance on Russia.
In the classic bipartisan configuration of French politics, LR has the greatest chance to win power in the elections next year. A member of the party sponsored a recently-adopted parliamentary resolution calling for the lifting of EU sanctions on Russia – a non-binding resolution that was supported by all of the party’s MPs that were present. The party’s leader, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has even made statements implicitly endorsing the annexation of Crimea. Beyond personal views and personal ties, the admiration for strong leaders, the Gaullist legacy, and the attachment to traditional values is what shapes LR politicians’ positions on Russia. An LR victory in the 2017 presidential elections might bring a change of discourse but is unlikely to bring a radical shift in France’s policies. Alain Juppé, who is the frontrunner to be the party nominee, has adopted positions on the Ukraine crisis and Russia that are close to the current diplomatic line. And the election results will not have fundamentally changed the domestic and European context in which France’s policies are determined. Third and more generally, the lines of French foreign policy are set by a small number of decision-makers and, in this exercise, their party tend to weigh in only in marginal ways.
Front National’s (FN) political, ideological, and financial links with Russia are well-known, and have been commented on at length. They do not affect French foreign policy choices, however, and are unlikely to do so in the near future since the FN is not close to gaining power. Besides, even if Marine Le Pen does end up sitting in the Elysée in 2030, her policies on Russia might turn out to be the least of Europe’s (and France’s) problems compared to other points of her programme.
Finally, many French policy planners would probably agree that there are domestic drivers to Russia’s foreign policy and on regime insecurity, particularly when it comes to its actions in Ukraine. At the same time though, they tend to think that Western policies also have a significant impact on Russia’s behaviour (and on these insecurities). This impact should thus inform our choice of response. The Russian-Georgian conflict of 2008 illustrates this point and Paris’ position in the Euro-Atlantic debates more generally. Some have claimed that NATO’s failure to grant membership to Georgia, and thereby to deter Russia, provoked the conflict. But for France (and Germany) the commitment made at the NATO Bucharest Summit in 2008 and George W. Bush’s policies in the region more generally paved the way for conflict (along, of course, with Russia's provocations and President Saakashvili's offensive on Tskhinvali). For Paris, the security interests of the Alliance should be the point of departure in its policies (i.e. how the admission of a new member affects the security of the Alliance) and more generally that these policies should seek to reinforce the security of its members whilst managing the potential for conflict.
The impact of Russia’s domestic evolution
Until the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, France mainly regarded Russia as a promising emerging market. Russia is one of several important trading partners for France (its tenth largest trading partner in 2013, accounting for 2 percent of its overall trade.) The value of France’s bilateral trade with Russia ($20 billion) was, in fact, lower in 2014 than that of Germany ($67 billion), Italy ($35 billion), the Netherlands ($36 billion) or Poland ($27 billion). Russia is of greater weight as a market for French direct investment in the country (the third biggest stock among EU member states and superior, for instance, to that of the US). Several of France’s major companies have important stakes in the Russian market, notably in the sectors of energy, transport, arms, banking and retail. Finally, economic links with Russia should be considered not just in light of France’s actual positions on the Russian market but also those it hopes to gain through its revamped economic diplomacy.
The economic recession in Russia and the sanctions and counter-sanctions are, however, eroding these links. Between 2014 and 2015, French exports to Russia dropped by 33 percent and France lost 27 percent of its market share in the country. French economic interests in Russia have been affected more by Western financial sanctions than by Russia’s counter-sanctions. French banks are reluctant to fund Russia-related projects which makes life difficult for French companies. This ‘over-compliance’ phenomenon is partly explained by the level of involvement of French banks in the US market and by the BNP-Paribas precedent. So if EU sanctions are lifted while US sanctions remain, the situation might not change. Overall, Russia’s continued economic decline and the maintaining of sanctions in the medium term would affect France’s economic position in Russia, but have a moderate impact on its external trade.
The further closure of Russia’s political and civic space would affect the Franco-Russian relationship, which has a strong historical, cultural, and educational dimension. France was the third destination for Russian students in 2012 for instance (after Germany and the US). Beyond science and education, France maintains a substantial cultural network in Russia. In this regard, and especially in light of the central role devoted to culture in France’s foreign policy, Paris is likely to be increasingly disturbed by the Kremlin’s new discourse that castigates Europe as an ontological other, especially if this discourse moves beyond rhetoric into actual policy.
Impact of Russia’s global policies
France has been closely monitoring the modernisation of the Russian military. It has been attempting to walk a fine line between providing strategic reassurances to its allies and avoiding further escalation. While France has demonstrated its readiness to commit troops in significant numbers for exercises on NATO's Eastern flank, it is reluctant to build up a NATO force in the region beyond what was agreed at the Wales Summit. Paris' view is that the Alliance’s deterrence posture should rather be based on flexibility, the reinforcement of power projection capabilities, and a political commitment to Article V. A small permanent force would signal the Alliance's lack of confidence in Article V whilst at the same time failing to provide sufficient military deterrence; a major permanent presence risks fuelling escalation with Russia and rending NATO static in overly focusing on the East while its capabilities might be needed elsewhere. A crisis in a close neighbour of the EU, such as Bosnia, would also involve France as it would it all likelihood prompt EU responses to which France would be party.
A crisis in the Eastern Neighbourhood would not directly threaten France’s vital interests, but might force it to divert resources and attention from other strategically important regions in order to be part of an EU/NATO crisis-management response. More profoundly, a protracted conflict between Russia and the EU and NATO would limit France's room for manoeuvre in these organisations and potentially reduce its strategic autonomy. It is not just about Russia’s foreign policy action, but also the type of collective response. Therefore, Paris would seek to avoid measures that it regards as unnecessarily inflammatory. One could question, for instance, the need for NATO’s Secretary General to call for Ukraine to sign the Association Agreement with the EU (as it did before the outbreak of the crisis), since this Agreement has nothing to do with NATO and this is the kind of rhetoric which feeds Russia’s narrative.
Although some predict that Russia will become more assertive in challenging Western interests, not just on the European continent but globally, it appears unlikely to challenge French interests in sub-Saharan Africa or in the Sahel. Moscow supported France’s 2013 intervention in Mali for instance, including at the UN. The emergence of a protracted conflict between Russia and the West could however lead Russia to block future interventions or other French initiatives at the UN Security Council. So, Russia's voting behaviour at the UNSC will be a key variable for France.
By contrast, Paris and Moscow found themselves at odds over Libya and, especially, Syria. With regard to the Middle East, the future dynamic of Franco-Russian relations is likely to be marked by a duality between polarisation over political regimes and incentives for co-operation against jihadist groups. Much depends on the extent to which the Syrian case is the exception rather than the rule in Russian policy in the Middle East, since Damascus is Moscow’s closest ally in the region.
Overall, the how will matter in addition to the where: France, after all, did not have key interests in Crimea but is concerned by the annexation as a violation of the basic rules of the European security order. It sees it as a dangerous re-opening of border issues in the post-Soviet space as well as potentially weakening for the non-proliferation regime (particularly central in France's foreign policy). These considerations have, in conjunction with the German-led European dynamic, played an important role in shaping Paris' response. France is not allergic to the very notion of Russian power, but rather worried how this power is wielded. The dual approach set out in its 2008 Foreign Policy White Book, of refusing to be drawn into a geopolitical competition with Russia over the common neighbourhood and of rejecting Russia's actions that break international norms, applies to the Ukraine crisis and will continue to guide its policies in the future.
Impact of the situation in the Eastern neighbourhood
The Eastern Partnership (EaP) region is not a strategic priority for France but will continue to matter as one of the EU’s neighbourhoods. Nagorny-Karabakh is of significant importance for Paris due to its position as co-chair of the OSCE’s Minsk Group and to its sizeable Armenian diaspora. By and large, France will continue to adhere to the ENP’s inherent logic of attempting to bring stability to the neighbourhood rather than see it destabilise the EU. It will back EU support for reform in EaP countries, though probably more in principle than in practice.
However, Paris will remain engaged on the Ukraine issue. France, as one of the sponsors of the Minsk Agreements, cannot push for the lifting of sanctions if no progress is made on the ground, not least because this would discredit sanctions as an EU foreign policy tool. This also means that it finds itself politically exposed on this dossier and that it will want the process to produce concrete results, especially as pressure is mounting at home. While many of the other items of the Minsk Agreements are stalling, Berlin and Paris are currently placing the emphasis on local elections in the Eastern regions and hope to achieve to progress there. A partial implementation of the Minsk Agreements could lead to calls for a partial lifting of sanctions (Crimea sanctions excluded). France regards sanctions as a policy instrument, which to be efficient needs to be linked to concrete demands, applied with some flexibility and combined with political dialogue.
If the conflict in Ukraine moves towards resolution, France will be ready to work towards a diplomatic overhaul of EU-Russia relations and of regional security more broadly. It is crucial that France remains engaged at the EU and NATO levels on Russia, so as to preserve the cohesion of these organisations, to demonstrate solidarity with their members, but also to calibrate their responses and to maintain a dialogue with Moscow with a view to returning to diplomacy with a more co-operative Russia.
Dr David Cadier is TAPIR Fellow at the Centre for Transatlantic Relations, SAIS Johns Hopkins University.
 A map of France’s current external operations is available at: http://www.defense.gouv.fr/operations/rubriques_complementaires/carte-des-operations-exterieures
 On this ‘Europeanisation’ pattern and the domestic factors (next paragraph), see: David Cadier, “Detour or Direction? The Europeanization of France’s Policies towards Russia”, FIIA Briefing Paper 195, 23 May 2016, available at: http://www.fiia.fi/fi/publication/591/detour_or_direction/
 The loss of income was eventually mitigated by the fact that France found another buyer for the warships, Egypt.
 In a poll from 2015, 82% of French respondents did not trust Putin (76% in Germany and 87% in Poland) and 70% had a negative opinion of Russia (70% in Germany and 80% in Poland). “Russia, Putin Held in Low Regard around the World”, Pew Research Centre, 5 August 2015, available at: http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/08/05/russia-putin-held-in-low-regard-around-the-world/
 See: “Nicolas Sarkozy légitime l’annexion de la Crimée par la Russie”, Le Figaro, 10 February 2015, available at: http://www.lefigaro.fr/politique/le-scan/coulisses/2015/02/10/25006-20150210ARTFIG00242-nicolas-sarkozy-legitime-l-annexion-de-la-crimee-par-la-russie.php
 Latent anti-Americanism could also be mentioned, for some of LR’s politicians and, especially, for far-left and far-right parties.
 Ministry of Economy and Industry of France, http://www.tresor.economie.gouv.fr/9470_10-premiers-partenaires-commerciaux-de-la-france-en-2013
 The Observatory of Economic Complexity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), http://atlas.media.mit.edu/en/profile/country/rus/
 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of France, available at: http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/russie_cle4b1a78.pdf
 Thomas Gomart, Le Retour du risque géopolitique: le triangle stratégique Russie, Chine, Etats-Unis, Institut de l’Entreprise, Paris, February 2016, p. 31.
 The bank had to pay a $9 billion fine to US authorities for violating US sanctions against Iran, Sudan and Syria, a decision taken in the name of the extraterritorial reach of American law. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-bnp-paribas-settlement-sentencing-idUSKBN0NM41K20150501
 La France et l'Europe dans le monde: Livre Blanc sur la Politique Etrangère et Européenne de la France 2008-2020, French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, p. 33. Available at: http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/fr/IMG/pdf/2LIVREBLANC_DEF.pdf
 The tentative lines of such a diplomatic overhaul are sketched for instance in a recent OSCE report. Back to Diplomacy: Final Report and Recommendations of the Panel of Eminent Persons on European Security as a Common Project, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, December 2015. Available at: http://www.osce.org/networks/205846
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.