Emmanuel Macron’s Russian policy: stages and roots of a new approach

IMAGO
IMAGO

France’s position towards Russia has been ambiva­lent for decades, based in part on myths, projec­tions and unre­al­istic ambitions. Emmanuel Macron’s policies vis-à-vis Moscow seem to embody this. At the beginning of the all-out invasion of Ukraine, the French President was a vocal proponent of talks and diplomacy. But his position has shifted remark­ably and in 2024 he even advocates sending ground troops to Ukraine. Dimitri Minic explains.

This paper is part of our Inter­na­tional Expert Network Russia. Its publi­ca­tion was supported by the German Foreign Ministry. The views expressed in the paper are the author’s own.

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German and Russian versions will be published on Russlandverstehen.eu

Histor­i­cally, France and Russia have mainly seen each other as potential allies in their respec­tive rivalries on the European continent and elsewhere in the world.[i] At the heart of these rivalries, from the second half of the twentieth century onwards, was the real or supposed position and influence of the United States. This explains both the persis­tence of this desire for rapproche­ment and the limits of this rela­tion­ship, which is much more fanta­sized than actually expe­ri­enced, making the Franco-Russian rela­tion­ship intrin­si­cally fragile. Three major stumbling blocks have condi­tioned the poor prospects for Franco-Russian relations, without ever hindering dialogue: firstly, the question of values and prin­ci­ples; secondly, the different rela­tion­ship with the United States; thirdly, the diver­gence of views and approaches between France and Germany on the nature of the rapproche­ment to be achieved between Europe and Russia. The Franco-Russian rela­tion­ship gradually went through “banal­iza­tion” under the pres­i­den­cies of Nicolas Sarkozy and, above all, François Hollande.[ii] Dialogue was not rejected, and France’s historic position on refusing Ukraine member­ship of NATO and the EU remained unchanged, but inten­tions were no longer the same, moving from a posture of “listening” and even empathy under Jacques Chirac to a pragmatic stance for European security.[iii]

While Emmanuel Macron has sought to continue his predecessor’s policy of dialogue and firmness (by prolonging sanctions, ruling out any new arms contracts and voicing scathing criticism of Moscow[iv]), he has also advocated, like B. Obama in 2009, a policy of reset with Russia; a dual approach embodied by the meeting with Vladimir Putin, at Versailles, in 2017, and the Trianon Dialogue[v]. E. Macron’s efforts have been largely futile, symbolic and unilat­eral. The French president under­es­ti­mated the fragility and poor struc­tural prospects of the Franco-Russian rela­tion­ship, the expe­ri­ence of his prede­ces­sors, and Russia’s political and strategic inten­tions and culture.[vi] This policy of rapproche­ment, and even inclusion, was highly coun­ter­pro­duc­tive for his European project, which lies at the heart of his ambitions. France’s claim to be a “balancing power” and “mediator”, and its desire to anchor itself in the “Gaullo-Mitter­ran­dian” tradition, have proved contra­dic­tory to Macron’s European ambitions (notably European strategic autonomy), which, oscil­lating between a “sover­eignist programme” and a “liberal programme”, have forged an “uncertain idea” of Europe.[vii]. The French President’s approach proved sterile and dele­te­rious in the Russian case, firstly by demon­strating the disunity and fragility of the European Union, and secondly by raising false hopes in the Kremlin.[viii] Founded on stubborn and tradi­tional illusions in France about Russia – which also combines a Russo-centric reading of the history of Eastern Europe and the idea that culture could overcome political disagree­ments[ix] –, bolstered by the advice of official and unof­fi­cial figures with poor under­standing of Post-Soviet Russia (Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Jean-Pierre Chevène­ment, Hubert Védrine…)[x], Emmanuel Macron’s Russian policy gradually proved unfruitful by 2021–2022 and isolated France in Europe. By 2022–2023, however, the French President had undergone a profound trans­for­ma­tion. The aim of this work is to outline the main stages and roots of this change in approach.

From illusions to failures: Emmanuel Macron’s Russia policy, 2017–2022

Emmanuel Macron has made three major mistakes in his rela­tion­ship with Russia, mistakes from which he will only gradually depart, even after February 24.

Firstly, he consid­ered Putin to be a pragmatic and reason­able man, capable of compro­mise and with whom the estab­lish­ment of a rela­tion­ship of trust, “man to man”, would enable progress to be made.[xi] Secondly, he has under­es­ti­mated the nature, cynicism and radi­calism of Russian inten­tions, which are not so much to gain accep­tance and recog­ni­tion in the West, or to balance the balance of power in Europe, as to satisfy impe­ri­alist and hegemonic ambitions[xii]. The Kremlin histor­i­cally sees France as a Trojan horse to extend its influence in the post-Soviet space and in Europe, to discon­nect the United States and Europe, and to dislocate the Euro-Atlantic security archi­tec­ture.[xiii] The French president has thus failed to gauge the scale of Russia’s anti-French projects, such as those, as early as 2018, to expel France from Africa, notably through Wagner, and to feed the “anti-French discourse”[xiv] in French-speaking Africa (between 2022 and 2023, France was forced to withdraw its forces from Mali, the Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Niger and perhaps soon Chad).

Thirdly, E. Macron has linked his project for the “refoun­da­tion” of Europe, of a strong Europe and of “European sover­eignty”, to the creation of a new security archi­tec­ture between Europe and Russia[xv], and thus to the success of the rapproche­ment with Russia, in which the central and eastern members of the European Union did not believe and did not associate them­selves[xvi]. The latter’s refusal to organize a summit with Vladimir Putin at the initia­tive of Paris and Berlin in the summer of 2021, against a backdrop of tensions with Moscow, was yet another illus­tra­tion (like the “Normandy format”, which led to the deadlock in the Minsk agree­ments) of this non-inclusive, inco­herent and dangerous policy for the security of the EU and NATO[xvii]. What is more, despite their histor­ical conver­gence on the principle of rapproche­ment with Russia, Paris and Berlin had different moti­va­tions and approaches. While both France and Germany were opposed to Ukrainian member­ship of the EU and NATO and tended to ignore the central and eastern members of these orga­ni­za­tions, there was no consensus on the nature of rapproche­ment with Russia[xviii]. While Emmanuel Macron, who sincerely considers Russia to be European[xix], saw it as a way of not pushing Moscow into Beijing’s arms, and of increasing Europe’s strategic autonomy and security, through a new security archi­tec­ture, Berlin, driven by a different expe­ri­ence and memory vis-à-vis Russia[xx], closer to Wash­ington and more attached to NATO than France, was rather skeptical on these points, and favored economic and energy coop­er­a­tion to “normalize” relations with Russia.[xxi] No less contra­dic­tory than Paris, succes­sive German govern­ments believed, or preferred to believe, that this economic approach would suffice. Joschka Fischer, Schröder’s Foreign Minister, expressed his incom­pre­hen­sion: “But why don’t the Russians talk to us about economics? They only talk to us about geopol­i­tics”.[xxii] These differ­ences of opinion, and indeed of objec­tives, between France and Germany, led Paris to isolate itself in 2019 in a sterile bilateral dialogue with Moscow, suspended after the poisoning of Alexei Navalny in 2020.[xxiii]

With nothing substan­tial to concede to Russia, the French President over­es­ti­mated his own ability to engage in dialogue with the Kremlin – revealing the limits of the idea of France as a “balancing power” and “mediator”. Like Nicolas Sarkozy in his day[xxiv], he was confronted with the intrinsic fragility of the Franco-Russian rela­tion­ship. Thus, although Macron showed himself open to the construc­tion of a new security archi­tec­ture that would include Russia and achieve Paris’s French and European ambitions, he at the same time main­tained a policy of sanctions, remained intran­si­gent on the values and prin­ci­ples that should underpin this new “European order” and, above all, was unwilling – and unable, given the positions of the EU’s central and eastern members – to give up security part­ner­ships with the USA.[xxv] Clearly unac­cept­able condi­tions for Moscow.

Paris under­stood too late what it publicly admitted on February 21, 2022, when it described Putin’s speech as “rigid and paranoid”. These lucid words from the Élysée about Vladimir Putin were the – admit­tedly modest – begin­nings of a gradual awakening on the part of the French president, who took a long time to rid himself of stubborn illusions. If, after February 24, 2022, Macron spoke of the “courage to take historic decisions”[xxvi] to help the then-invaded Ukraine, so that Russia could “never prevail”[xxvii], he seemed equally preoc­cu­pied with making peace (he had long believed he could convince Putin to make a deal[xxviii]) and winning the peace to come with Russia, not to “humiliate”[xxix] Russia, and even to envisage a “European political community”[xxx] (May 2022), in which Ukraine could have a place – which meant ruling out the question of EU candidate status for Kyiv. At first sight, these maneuvers, which have aroused incom­pre­hen­sion and even suspicion among France’s European partners, have a simple expla­na­tion. As early as February 24, faced with Putin’s nuclear threats, the Elysée realized that France and Russia, both nuclear powers, could find them­selves drawn into a conti­nental war in Europe, two years after Macron explained, even more clearly than his prede­ces­sors, that France’s “vital interests” included a “European dimension”.[xxxi] But, as we shall see, this issue alone is not enough to explain Paris’s maneuvers. .

At the turning point of 2022–2023, the French posture underwent a gradual change of approach.

A new approach based on the balance of power

While Paris continued to try to mediate with the Kremlin, even after the Bucha massacre was uncovered in March 2022, French posi­tioning gradually changed. From the UN speech of September 2022 to the confer­ence in support of Ukraine on February 27, 2024, the French President made a slow trans­for­ma­tion, both in words and deeds, to the point of breaking with historic positions: granting Ukraine EU candidate status in June 2022, as well as supporting Ukraine’s accession to NATO in June 2023.[xxxii]

This gradual change in approach can be explained first and foremost by an awareness of the need, in the face of Russia’s objec­tively radical policy, to adopt a tougher stance in order to influence the balance of power and force Moscow to stop the war. For a long time, the Elysée tried to influence the conflict by wielding the carrot (nego­ti­a­tions, “phone call” diplomacy) and the stick (sanctions against Russia and material support for Ukraine). However, Paris was forced to abandon this fruitless “balanced” approach. Emmanuel Macron seems to have gradually come to under­stand that only the balance of power with Moscow works. This new approach was adopted very gradually. It was probably in his speech to the UN in September 2022 that he set the first mile­stones. In it, he showed himself eager to justify his previous efforts for “peace”, before and after the invasion[xxxiii], and, above all, sought to convince the countries of the “Global South” of the vacuity and immorality of a Russian project devoid of prin­ci­ples and values (E. Macron evoked the return of the “colonies”)[xxxiv]. The President also clearly refers to Russia’s “glob­al­ized” hybrid war beyond Ukraine[xxxv], an idea that will become recurrent in his speeches[xxxvi] and illus­trates the pres­i­den­tial awareness of the Kremlin’s radi­calism and determination.

Never­the­less, in 2022, some illusions seem to persist, balancing out the picture painted by Macron. For example, at the UN, the French President mentions the possi­bility of nego­ti­a­tions on condition that “Russia accepts them in good faith” (as if Russia had not violated a number of agree­ments it had promised to respect in “good faith”)[xxxvii]. Three months later, in December 2022, Paris spoke of the impor­tance of “security guar­an­tees” for Russia when Moscow returned to the “nego­ti­ating table”, giving credence to Russian arguments such as “fear of NATO” and “weapons deploy­ments that could threaten Russia” (deploy­ments that Moscow had refused to discuss despite Washington’s openness in early 2022)[xxxviii]. These words were hardly over­shad­owed by a phrase that revealed his change of approach, pronounced on December 31, 2022 and addressed to the Ukrainians: “We will help you to victory”.[xxxix]

In February 2023, sixteen years after Putin’s viru­lently anti-Western speech at the Munich confer­ence, E. Macron gave an even clearer speech than at the UN, in line with this new approach which seeks to expose and dele­git­imize a failed, unre­al­istic and immoral Russian policy. He points to four failures: that of the initial Russian military plan; that of the Russian colonial mentality, in Ukraine and around the world (a theme even more exploited than at the UN); that of the predic­tion of events (consol­i­da­tion of Ukraine, enlarge­ment of NATO to include Sweden and Finland, increased depen­den­cies, mistrust of other countries); and that of Putin’s promise to restore Russia’s authority in the world (sacri­ficed economic devel­op­ment and suspicion of neighbors)[xl]. This discred­iting of Russian policy, which began at the UN, is something that Macron has since regularly indulged in, as in Bratislava, where he explained that these failures had consid­er­ably weakened Russia[xli], and in Paris in 2024, where he added to this series sending opponents “to die in the Gulag”[xlii]. Despite these “setbacks”, Russia persists in its “headlong rush”[xliii]. In addition to its dele­git­imizing effect, the recur­rence of this theme in Macron’s discourse on Russia illus­trated a dual awareness: on the one hand, of the Kremlin’s radi­cality and deter­mi­na­tion, and on the other, of the need to adapt France’s posture in order to influence the conflict, by clearly relying on the balance of power.

President Macron himself acknowl­edged in Munich that it was no longer time for “dialogue”, that his approach to Russia had changed as a result of the radical nature of Russian policy (war, war crimes, destruc­tion of civilian infra­struc­ture, etc.), and that helping Ukraine was the “only way” to “bring Russia back to the discus­sion table in a way that is accept­able [to Ukraine]” and to “build a lasting peace”[xliv]. In an interview with the French national press on his return from Munich, he stated that stepping up aid to Ukraine with a view to a counter-offensive would “trigger a return to nego­ti­a­tions”.[xlv] While he was even more direct than in Munich, saying that he wanted Russia to be “defeated” by Ukraine, he also made it clear that he did not want to “defeat Russia completely, attacking it on its own soil”[xlvi].

In Bratislava, the French President confirmed his trans­for­ma­tion. As in Munich, he stated his belief in the virtues of the balance of power. He stressed his convic­tion that an “effective” counter-offensive is “indis­pens­able” to have the “possi­bility” of a “lasting” and “chosen peace”, and justified supporting Ukraine “by all means” to achieve this.[xlvii] To be “credible vis-à-vis Russia” and achieve this objective, he also indi­rectly referred to the need to increase arms produc­tion in Europe.[xlviii] He added that “solid security guar­an­tees” were needed for Ukraine, that it must be “included” in a “credible security archi­tec­ture”, and asserted that Russia “will pay the geopo­lit­ical price” if it “persists in wanting to desta­bi­lize Europe”.[xlix] In a sign of a major shift in the French position, France’s support for Ukraine’s rapid accession to NATO seems to have been analyzed by Paris as a further means of weighing in the balance of power and putting pressure on Russia.[l] In August 2023, on the occasion of the Crimean Platform Summit, in a message addressed to Volodymyr Zelensky, he once again spelled out the aim of this new approach: faced with a Russia that had “locked itself into the strategy of violence” and of “fait accompli”, France continues to provide assis­tance in all areas to ensure that “Russia puts an end to the war of aggres­sion” and to enable Ukraine to “prevail”.[li]

Why the new approach?

This new approach, gradually adopted by France, outlined at the UN, deepened in Munich and affirmed in Bratislava, is obviously multi-causal. As we have said, it is the fruit of a gradual awareness of the Kremlin’s radi­calism and deter­mi­na­tion. This was accom­pa­nied by a more lucid presen­ta­tion (and vision?) of contem­po­rary Russian politics, and of Moscow’s true objec­tives and cynicism.  Recall that in 2019, Macron wrongly analyzed the erosion of Russian-Western relations as the fruit of a “series of misun­der­stand­ings” in the years 1990–2000, when Europe “did not pursue its own strategy” and gave the impres­sion of being a “Trojan horse of a West whose ultimate goal was to destroy Russia”.[lii] As we have seen, until December 2022, the French President continued to propose this reading of a Russian foreign policy largely deter­mined “by external factors”[liii]. These elements of Macron’s discourse on Russia, which the President probably believed in part and perhaps still does[liv], were compat­ible with his policy of rapproche­ment and inclusion between Europe and Russia, and with the construc­tion of a more sovereign and stronger Europe, less dependent (but not discon­nected) from NATO and the United States.

Macron’s narrative seemed to change (or adapt) in 2023. In Bratislava, for example, the French President admitted that Russia’s attempts to “shake up” and “reshape in its own terms” the “edifice of European security” had been going on for “15 years”, from the Munich speech in 2007 to the aggres­sions in Georgia and Ukraine, and the “creeping vassal­iza­tion” of Belarus.[lv] He under­stands that the Russian ultimatum of December 2021 reflected Russia’s true objec­tives, namely the “trustee­ship” of “part of Europe”[lvi], and that the inter­na­tional order proposed by Moscow is in fact that of its hegemony.[lvii] The President also explains that Russia is counting on the West’s division, through “this or that election”, on “opinion fatigue” to freeze the conflict and start the war again “tomorrow or the day after tomorrow”.[lviii] This more relevant vision of Russian foreign policy – though still (inten­tion­ally?) super­fi­cial (under­es­ti­mating the histor­ical conti­nu­ities in Russia’s impe­ri­alism and anti-West­ernism) – proved more compat­ible with the President’s new European strategy (see below).

What’s more, Emmanuel Macron seems to have gradually come to realize that he has been lured by Putin, with whom he had long thought a rela­tion­ship of trust would help.. Never­the­less, it would be unfair to accuse the French President of excessive naivety and weakness. As early as 2017, Emmanuel Macron showed that he was aware of the nature of the Russian regime and its hostile actions – he had the dual expe­ri­ence of François Hollande’s five-year term and his own pres­i­den­tial election, in which Moscow had inter­fered.[lix] At Brégançon in 2019, while pursuing his rapproche­ment with Putin, he did not hesitate to anchor in the bay the Languedoc frigate that had fired missiles in Syria in 2018, after a chemical attack in Damascus.[lx] In 2020, after the attempted poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the French President was aware that Putin was cynically and noncha­lantly deceiving him, suggesting that the Russian political opponent had himself ingested the poison.[lxi] Thus, contrary to what Macron himself claimed in Munich in 2023, it is highly unlikely that he could really have “believed” Putin’s lies about the absence of any link between the Kremlin and Wagner – until the war “unveiled” that “ambiguity”.[lxii] In addition, Paris quickly deployed three nuclear submarines following the invasion of Ukraine (a maneuver unseen in 30 years) and continued its strategic exercises to show Moscow that dialogue would take place “between equal nuclear powers”.[lxiii]

However, Macron seems to have deluded himself into believing that, thanks to a rela­tion­ship of trust, he could influence certain positions of Putin, prevent him from starting the war against Ukraine and push him towards peace.[lxiv] . It is probably in this sense that we should under­stand Volodymyr Zelensky’s comment to the French press that Macron had under­stood that he had been “person­ally deceived” by Putin.[lxv] If the Élysée continued to speak with Putin after February 24, 2022, Macron got tired and entirely stopped with a final conver­sa­tion on the Zapor­izhzhia nuclear power plant in September 2022, the month of his speech at the UN.[lxvi] A former minister speaks of “radi­cal­iza­tion by disap­point­ment”.[lxvii] Russia’s abuse of nuclear rhetoric, as well as the straight and effective response to yet another Russian nuclear threat by Wash­ington, London and Paris through private channels in the autumn of 2022 (conven­tional retal­i­a­tion by all three countries in the event of use)[lxviii], probably helped to convince Macron of the impor­tance of the balance of power in relations with Russia.

While all this certainly played a funda­mental role, Emmanuel Macron’s European project, closely linked to the above, was probably a decisive factor. With his positions, his caveats and his concep­tion of France as a “balancing power” and “mediator”, the French President continued to isolate himself in Europe and rein­forced the skep­ti­cism of the central and eastern members of the European project of Macron[lxix], even though European inte­gra­tion is at the heart of his ambitions. He has long hoped and even believed, as we have seen above, that the construc­tion of a sovereign and strong Europe would involve linking Russia to the continent through a new security archi­tec­ture, more autonomous but not in rupture, and even less a rival to Euro-Atlantic struc­tures. This largely explains the peace efforts before and after the invasion, the caveats and Macron’s “little phrases”, including after February 24 – even though the invasion proved Poland and the Baltic countries right – and until at least December 2022.[lxx] This belief took into account neither Russian inten­tions nor the legit­i­mate fears of the eastern and central members of the EU and NATO. Even today, Emmanuel Macron has probably not given up on a new security archi­tec­ture that includes Moscow in one way or another[lxxi], but he seems to have gradually under­stood that the construc­tion of a strong and sovereign Europe must first and foremost go through the members of the EU, and in partic­ular through its central and eastern members, which French policy (including Macron’s) has often neglected in favor of a rapproche­ment with Moscow. It was in Bratislava in June 2023 that the French President expressed this most bluntly, when he altered Jacques Chirac’s famous address to those countries who in 2003 opposed the Paris-Berlin-Moscow coalition by supporting the war in Iraq: “we have sometimes missed oppor­tu­ni­ties to listen. That time is over and today, that voice must be the voice of all of us.”[lxxii] Symbol­i­cally, Macron seemed to have mourned the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis of 2003, “the last Gaullian moment of French diplomacy”[lxxiii].

The French President’s gradual shift to a more coherent approach is probably also motivated by the fact that he, from the start, saw this war as an oppor­tu­nity to consol­i­date Europe. Macron affirmed in March 2022 in Versailles that this “crisis” shows how European sover­eignty “today” is becoming an “imper­a­tive”[lxxiv]. He affirmed this again in Stras­bourg, welcoming the fact that Europe has pulled itself together in recent years after a long “crisis of meaning”, and recalling the danger of not responding “strongly and quickly” enough to crises (financial, pandemic, war) due to a lack of strategic inde­pen­dence.[lxxv] In Bratislava, he welcomed the fact that the war had shown the “unity, the ideo­log­ical clar­i­fi­ca­tion of the EU and also its clarity [...] with regard to Ukraine”, and insisted on the creation of a Europe of defense which, alone, will allow it to be “credible over time”.[lxxvi] In Stockholm, in January 2024, Macron asserted even more bluntly: Russia’s aggres­sion, “fortu­nately”, was “part of the trigger point towards more sover­eignty in Europe”.[lxxvii] In a context where NATO’s political legit­i­macy has been strength­ened since 2022, the French President is able to take advantage of the uncer­tain­ties linked to the stability of the transat­lantic link, affected by possible changes in the lead­er­ship of the United States that make the creation of a Europe of defense, NATO’s “European pillar”, “indis­pens­able”[lxxviii].

A turning point in the new approach

However, this new approach reached a turning point in January 2024, which became evident in February-March. In Stockholm on January 30, he asserted for the first time in such a deter­mined manner, that it is “impos­sible to see Russia winning this war” and that Ukraine must be supported “whatever it costs, and at all costs”[lxxix]. For the Ukrainians to be in a “position to negotiate a lasting peace”, he affirmed, it is necessary to accel­erate and intensify the effort “in terms of produc­tion” and – in the first probable allusion to troops on the ground – “perhaps in terms of nature”.[lxxx] At the signing of the Franco-Ukrainian bilateral agreement on February 16 in Paris, Macron further toughened his speech. The French President noted a turning point in Moscow’s radi­calism, partic­u­larly against Europe and France. Russia, he said, had changed its posture, had crossed thresh­olds. It had “opened a new phasea few months ago,without limits, in which its actions (attacks) in the cyber and infor­ma­tion sphere have “multi­plied, system­atized and inten­si­fied”[lxxxi]. It is to this new level of aggres­sive radi­calism that Paris is trying to respond in order, as during the change of approach (2022–2023), to try to influence the balance of power: Macron thus calls for a “collec­tive awakening” and, in line with his Stockholm speech, evokes the need to “open a phase of new strategic and oper­a­tional reflec­tion”.[lxxxii]

At the end of the confer­ence in support of Ukraine on February 27, 2024, the French president, consid­ering Russia’s increased radi­calism and the need to do “whatever is necessary for as long as necessary” so that Ukraine can “to negotiate peace under the best condi­tions and [obtain] the return to its full and complete sover­eignty and its terri­to­rial integrity”, was even more explicit[lxxxiii]. He asserted that even if no “consensus” exists for an “official”, “assumed” and “endorsed” sending of “ground troops”, “in dynamics, nothing must be excluded” and that “anything is possible, if it is useful to achieve our objective”.[lxxxiv] In mid-March 2024, Macron confirmed his vision of the increased radi­calism of Russian policy and defended his essential response to keep a balance of power – by explaining that it was the “profound” change in “recent months” which led him to mention ground troops.[lxxxv] He thus evoked an “exis­ten­tial war for our Europe and for France” led by a country and a man, Vladimir Putin, who lies, does not want peace and would not stop at Ukraine.[lxxxvi] Bringing peace, he asserts, requires “not being weak”, but being “credible, strong and ready”.[lxxxvii]

Why did the French President step up pressure and intensify his support for Ukraine? Why did he do that at this precise moment?

As has been said earlier, there have been clear obser­va­tionof an increase in the Kremlin’s radi­calism and deter­mi­na­tion, including many hostile actions by Russia against Europe and France over several months: cyber­at­tacks, which include attacks against hospitals, disin­for­ma­tion campaigns from networks such as “Portal Kombat”, false infor­ma­tion such as that French merce­naries are in Ukraine, or even intim­i­dating military action.[lxxxviii] Russia’s domestic radi­calism, like the death of Alexei Navalny in February, played into this, too – even if Macron had no illusions about the possi­bility of a demo­c­ratic force taking power in Russia.[lxxxix] A threat­ening tweet from Dimitri Medvedev against Macron before the scheduled President’s visit to Ukraine in February, was analyzed at the Élysée as a death threat[xc]. Likewise, Donald Trump’s state­ments (also in February), that the U.S. might not protect an attacked NATO member and would even encourage the aggressor, probably played a role.[xci]

Yet the most important thing is probably not there. The hypoth­esis of sending ground troops would have already been the subject of a meeting during a defense council, on June 12, 2023 at the Élysée.[xcii] As we have seen, this possi­bility is also already implic­itly mentioned in his Stockholm speech. The dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the Ukrainian front seems, in private, to have worried Macron since the end of 2023[xciii], which he expressed very directly in March 2024: “The Ukrainian counter-offensive did not go as expected [ …], the situation is difficult on the ground for the Ukrainians.”[xciv] He also report­edly told a private meeting in February 2024, that he “will have to” send men to Odesa “in the coming year”.[xcv]

In Macron’s eyes, the sustain­ability of the European project seems to be closely linked to the support and even a form of victory for Ukraine. The French President believes that Russia’s “defeat” (he used the same word during an interview with Le Figaro after Munich) is “indis­pens­able for security and stability in Europe”[xcvi] and even for the “cred­i­bility” of Europe.[xcvii]

The form of Macron’s statement on an “assumed” sending of “ground troops” is probably clumsy, as is the manage­ment of this “moment” subse­quently (contra­dic­tory decla­ra­tions on “non-fighting personnel”) by officials in France, and by the President himself. Macron had already expe­ri­enced similar diffi­cul­ties in October 2022, when he gave an awkward response about a French reaction to a possible Russian tactical nuclear attack in Ukraine.[xcviii] Likewise, consul­ta­tions with other supporters of Ukraine should have been carried out.

Did Macron want to break a taboo in relations with Berlin? After all, he had long kept his disagree­ments with Berlin on Nord Stream 2 quiet[xcix], in order not to damage the Franco-German rela­tion­ship. His harsh criticism of Germany[c], which as of April 2024 still refuses to supply Ukraine with Taurus missiles and opposes any joint European loan – an idea supported by Macron – for the purchase of munitions and weapons for the European defense industry and the Ukraine, might suggest that he wanted to overcome internal differ­ences by making them public. For Berlin has – despite Olaf Scholz’s call for a Zeit­en­wende – long hesitated to implement such a paradigm shift and has refused to take initia­tives in support of Ukraine, leaving it to the United States, Great Britain and Eastern European to take the lead.[ci] While the Elysée at first reacted with similarly hesitant and cautious maneuvers, it gradually realized that the future of the European project, the creation of a strong and sovereign Europe, would require massive and deter­mined support for Ukraine.

Conclu­sion

These blunders probably take nothing away from the seri­ous­ness of the convic­tion of the French President, whom some wrongly or too quickly accuse of being versatile, even irra­tional, or simply cynical for national political reasons. Emmanuel Macron made serious errors of assess­ment and was, like others before him, a victim of the mirage of rapproche­ment with Russia, by under­es­ti­mating, moreover, the fragility and weak struc­tural prospects of the French-Russian rela­tion­ship. However, he has not only publicly recog­nized his mistakes, but he has changed – admit­tedly, very gradually – to better achieve his political objec­tives, in which the European project holds a central place and from which, moreover, he does not exclude Russia forever. The French President’s new approach does not rhyme with a lack of talks between Paris and Moscow, as shown by the recent discus­sions between the French Minister of the Armed Forces and his Russian coun­ter­part after the terror attack on Crocus City Hall. But their manip­u­la­tion by the Kremlin and the “baroque and threat­ening” comments made by the Russians after the discus­sion have shown their limits.[cii] French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné recently acknowl­edged these limits, in terms that are highly sugges­tive of Emmanuel Macron’s new approach: France has no “interest” in talking with Russian officials; “we need to have an evolution on the military terrain so that relations can be renewed”. “We need to speak the same language as Russia, that of the balance of power”, he asserted a month earlier.[ciii]

From now on, although funda­mental decisions – unthink­able before February 24 2022 – have already been taken by the Élysée and the European Union, Paris must strive to reduce the gap between its real actions and its words, including those on the “war economy”[civ], without waiting for Europe to finance the French defense industry. This would make it possible to balance efforts between the allies – Germany will probably have produced 10 to 15 times more 155-mm shells than France in 2024 – to be an emulating force among Ukraine’s supporters in Europe and to reassure European partners. This can only strengthen France’s cred­i­bility, and hence that of its plans for European defense and strategic autonomy, lend cred­i­bility to a dissua­sive posture that is more active than reactive, increase Ukraine’s capa­bil­i­ties of keeping Moscow at bay, and thus contribute to the balance of power by creating real dilemmas for Russia.. The latter has never refrained from creating dilemmas for the West; and the next one, if Europe fails to support Ukraine, will perhaps be the “last” and could result in a general war or a dislo­ca­tion of European and Euro-Atlantic struc­tures. To be faced with such a dilemma would be a defeat for Europe; but the best way to avoid it is for Moscow to believe Europe is ready to resolve it coura­geously, and this requires massive and lasting support for Ukraine. It seems that this is the belief the French President ended up progres­sively adhering to.

 

 

[i] Isabelle Facon, “La relation France-Russie à l’épreuve”, Annuaire français des relations inter­na­tionales, vol. XVI, 2015, pp. 117–131.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Anne de Tinguy, “Russie : la France en quête de paradigme”, Les Dossiers du CERI, Sciences Po, April 2017.

https://www.sciencespo.fr/

[iv] Céline Marangé, Susan Stewart, “French and German approaches to Russia”, Chatham House, 30 November 2021. https://www.chathamhouse.org/

[v] Joint press confer­ence by Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, and Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Feder­a­tion, on Franco-Russian relations and the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, Versailles, May 29, 2017. https://www.vie-publique.fr/

[vi] Dimitri Minic, Pensée et culture stratégiques russes, Maison des sciences de l’Homme, 2023.

[vii] Voir Samuel B. H. Faure, « Une idée incer­taine de l’Europe. Comprendre les ambiguïtés stratégiques d’Emmanuel Macron », Les Champs de Mars, 2020/​1 (N° 34), p. 150–151, 166–167.

[viii] Marie Mendras, « France’s Auto­cri­tique of Its “Russia First, Ukraine Second” Policy », Zentrum Liberale Moderne, 1er décembre 2022, https://libmod.de/.

[ix] Thomas Gomart, Les Ambitions inavouées, Tallandier, Paris, 2023, pp. 282–284, et Jean-Sylvestre, Mongre­nier, Le Monde vu de Russie, PUF, Paris, pp. 282–284.

[x] See Elsa Vidal, La Fasci­na­tion russe, Robert Laffont, 2024, p. 29 and Isabelle Lasserre, Liaisons dangereuses, Editions de l’Observatoire, 2023, pp. 42–43. See also Thomas Mahler, “Guerre en Ukraine : ces ‘experts’ qui assur­aient que Poutine n’attaquerait pas”, L’Express, 24 February 2022, https://www.lexpress.fr/.

[xi] Op. cit., Lasserre, pp. 13–25 and op. cit., Vidal.

[xii] Voir Françoise Thom, La Marche à rebours, Sorbonne Univer­sité Presses, Paris, 2021, et op. cit., Minic.

[xiii] Marie-Pierre Rey, La Russie face à l’Occident, Flam­marion, Paris, 2016, pp. 361–399.

[xiv] Alain Antil, Thierry Vircoulon, François Gioval­ucchi, “Théma­tiques, acteurs et fonctions du discours anti-français en Afrique fran­cophone”, Études de l’Ifri, 14 June 2023. https://www.ifri.org/. See also: Thierry Vircoulon, “La RussAfrique à l’épreuve de la guerre”, Briefings de l’Ifri, Ifri, 25 July 2023, https://www.ifri.org/.

[xv] Joint statement by Emmanuel Macron and Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Feder­a­tion, August 20, 2019, https://www.elysee.fr/; French President’s address to the Ambas­sadors’ Confer­ence, August 27, 2019, https://www.elysee.fr/; Speech by President Emmanuel Macron on defense strategy and deter­rence to the trainees of the 27th class of the Ecole de Guerre, February 7, 2020, https://www.elysee.fr/; Aline Robert, “La Russie, une priorité française”, Euractiv, 27 August 2019, https://www.euractiv.fr/.

[xvi] Jonathan Eyal, “France, Germany and the ‘Russia Engage­ment’ Game”, RUSI, 29 June 2021, https://rusi.org/.

[xvii] See Sylvie Kauffman, Les Aveuglés, Stock, Paris, 2023, pp. 322–353, 387–392, and op. cit., Eyal, 2021.

[xviii] Op. cit., Marangé, Stewart.

[xix] Op. cit., Lasserre, pp. 37–39.

[xx] Christo­pher S. Chivvis, Thomas Rid, “The Roots of Germany’s Russia Policy”, Survival, 51:2, 2009, pp. 105–122.

[xxi] Éric-André Martin, “La fin d’une paren­thèse heureuse. Comment la guerre d’Ukraine contraint l’Allemagne à repenser son modèle”, Notes du Cerfa, n° 175, Ifri, September 2023, pp. 14–15, https://www.ifri.org/.

[xxii] Op. cit., Kauffman, p. 271

[xxiii] Op. cit., Marangé, Stewart.

[xxiv] Statement by Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the French Republic, on relations between the European Union and Russia, Evian, October 8, 2008, https://www.elysee.fr/.

[xxv] Speech by President Emmanuel Macron to the European Parlia­ment, January 19, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/.

[xxvi] Statement by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on the European Union in the face of the conflict in Ukraine and its conse­quences for European inte­gra­tion, Versailles, March 11, 2022, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xxvii] Statement by Mr Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on European inte­gra­tion and the conflict in Ukraine, in Stras­bourg on May 9, 2022, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xxviii] Op. cit., Mendras.

[xxix] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech at Versailles on March 11, 2022; op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Stras­bourg on May 9, 2022.

[xxx] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Stras­bourg on May 9, 2022.

[xxxi] Polina Sinovets, Adérito Vicente, “‘Nuclear spring is coming’: examining French nuclear deter­rence in response to Russia’s actions in Ukraine”, Note de la FRS, n°8, 2024, https://www.frstrategie.org/; op. cit., E. Macron’s speech, 7 February 2020.

[xxxii] Clea Caulcutt, “Macron’s slow but bold U‑turn on Ukraine”, Politico, 12 September 2023. https://www.politico.eu/ ; op. cit., Mendras.

[xxxiii] French President’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 20, 2022, https://www.elysee.fr/.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Statement by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on the conflict in Ukraine and European defence, in Munich on 17 February 2023, https://www.vie-publique.fr/; Decla­ra­tion by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on defense coop­er­a­tion within the European Union, in Stockholm on January 30, 2024, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xxxvii] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech to the UN on September 20, 2022.

[xxxviii] Philippe Ricard, “Les décla­ra­tions d’Emmanuel Macron sur la Russie ulcèrent Kiev et ses alliés”, Le Monde, 8 décembre 2022, https://www.lemonde.fr/.

[xxxix] Statement by Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, on the reforms under­taken in 2022, soli­darity with Ukraine, the opening of China’s borders and the prior­i­ties of govern­ment policy for 2023, in partic­ular pension reform, in Paris on December 31, 2022, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xl] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Munich on February 17, 2023.

[xli] Statement by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on the conflict in Ukraine, NATO and the European Union, in Bratislava on May 31, 2023, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xlii] Press confer­ence by Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the Republic, on the conflict in Ukraine and the bilateral Franco-Ukrainian security agreement, in Paris on February 16, 2024, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Munich on February 17, 2023.

[xlv] “Guerre en Ukraine : Emmanuel Macron veut ‘la défaite’ de la Russie, mais sans l’‘écraser’”, Le Figaro with AFP, February 18, 2024, https://www.lefigaro.fr/.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Bratislava on May 31, 2023.

[xlviii] Ibid.

[xlix] Ibid.

[l] Cédric Pietralunga, Philippe Ricard, “La France se résout à soutenir l’adhésion de l’Ukraine à l’OTAN”, Le Monde, 20 juin 2023, https://www.lemonde.fr/.

[li] Message from Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, to the Ukrainian President and the partic­i­pants of the Crimea Platform Summit, on the conflict in Ukraine, August 23, 2023, https://www.vie-publique.fr/.

[lii] Op. cit., Discours d’E. Macron, 27 août 2019.

[liii] Hannes Adomeit, “Une politique russe à la française pour l’Europe ? Irréal­iste et contra­dic­toire”, Politique étrangère, 2020/​1 (Spring), pp. 84–85.

[liv] Op. cit., Lasserre, pp. 13–25, 32–35.

[lv] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Bratislava on May 31, 2023.

[lvi] Ibid.

[lvii] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron to the UN on September 20, 2022.

[lviii] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Bratislava on May 31, 2023. He’ll say it again: op. cit., Press confer­ence in Paris on February 16, 2024.

[lix] Op. cit., Marangé, Stewart.

[lx] Op. cit., Lasserre, p. 32.

[lxi] Op. cit., Lasserre, pp. 35–36.

[lxii] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Munich on February 17, 2023.

[lxiii] Op. cit., Sinovets, Vicente.

[lxiv] Op. cit., Lasserre, pp. 13–25, 32–35.

[lxv] Claire Gatinois, Cédric Pietralunga, et al., “Guerre en Ukraine : la méta­mor­phose d’Emmanuel Macron, colombe devenue faucon”, Le Monde, 14 March 2024, https://www.lemonde.fr/.

[lxvi] Ibid.

[lxvii] Ibid.

[lxviii] Op. cit., Sinovets, Vicente.

[lxix] Ringailė Kuokštytė, “La percep­tion de la France par les pays baltes : quels obstacles pour parvenir à un rapproche­ment sécu­ri­taire ? ”, Le Rubicon, July 11, 2023, https://lerubicon.org/.

[lxx] See comments from J.-Y. Le Drian and a diplo­matic source: op. cit. Lasserre, pp. 22–23.

[lxxi] See the speech in Munich (February 2023) where E. Macron asserts that a “lasting and complete peace” in Europe requires “[knowing] how to embrace the Russian question”. See also his speech in Bratislava (May 2023), in which the President speaks of a necessary “cohab­i­ta­tion” with the “Russia of tomorrow”, which he never­the­less makes condi­tional on Ukraine “respected in its rights” and “restoring inter­na­tional law”. E. Macron believes that the absence of “imperial fantasies” in Europe is a precon­di­tion for any “future orga­ni­za­tion of peace”. In Stockholm (January 2024), he explained that there is “no future” without a “new security archi­tec­ture”, which is “essential” and “must not be delegated to the great powers”, even if “NATO will be part of it”.

[lxxii] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron in Bratislava on May 31, 2023.

[lxxiii] Op. cit., Gomart, p. 284.

[lxxiv] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech at Versailles on March 11, 2022.

[lxxv] Op. cit., E. Macron’s speech in Stras­bourg on May 9, 2022.

[lxxvi] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron in Bratislava on May 31, 2023.

[lxxvii] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron in Stockholm on January 30, 2024.

[lxxviii] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron in Bratislava on May 31, 2023. See also Faure, 2020, p. 157–158.

[lxxix] Op. cit., Speech by E. Macron in Stockholm on January 30, 2024.

[lxxx] Ibid.

[lxxxi] Op. cit., E. Macron press confer­ence in Paris on February 16, 2024.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Press confer­ence by President Emmanuel Macron after the Ukraine Support Confer­ence, February 27, 2024, https://www.elysee.fr/.

[lxxxiv] Ibid.

[lxxxv] Interview with Emmanuel Macron on France 2 and TF1, March 14, 2024, https://www.youtube.com/.

[lxxxvi] Ibid.

[lxxxvii] Ibid.

[lxxxviii] Op. cit., Claire Gatinois, Cédric Pietralunga, 14 March 2024.

[lxxxix] Op. cit., Le Figaro avec AFP, 18 février 2024.

[xc] Op. cit., Claire Gatinois, Cédric Pietralunga, 14 March 2024.

[xci] “Donald Trump dit que ses menaces contre l’OTAN étaient une ‘manière de négocier’ avec ses membres”, Le Monde with AFP, 19 March 2024, https://www.lemonde.fr/. Macron mentions the possible loss of American support in Stockholm (January 2024) and Paris (16 February 2024).

[xcii] Op. cit., Claire Gatinois, Cédric Pietralunga, 14 March 2024.

[xciii] Ibid.

[xciv] Op. cit., France 2 and TF1, March 14, 2024.

[xcv] Op. cit., Claire Gatinois, Cédric Pietralunga, 14 March 2024.

[xcvi] Op. cit., Press confer­ence by President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the Ukraine Support Confer­ence, February 27, 2024.

[xcvii] Op. cit., France 2 and TF1, March 14, 2024.

[xcviii] Op. cit., Sinovets, Vicente.

[xcix] Op. cit., Kauffman, pp. 261–266.

[c] Op. cit., Press confer­ence by President Emmanuel Macron at the end of the Ukraine Support Confer­ence, February 27, 2024; Speech by President Emmanuel Macron to the French community in the Czech Republic, March 5, 2024, https://www.elysee.fr/.

[ci] Serghii Plokhy, La guerre russo-ukraini­enne, Gallimard, Paris, pp. 280–286.

[cii] “Guerre en Ukraine : Emmanuel Macron dénonce des propos ‘baroques et menaçants’ des Russes après le contact entre ministres de la Défense”, France Info with AFP, 4 April 2024, https://www.francetvinfo.fr/.

[ciii] Interview with Stéphane Séjourné, “Stéphane Séjourné : ‘Tenir tête à la Russie, c’est le vrai patri­o­tisme’”, La Tribune, 10 March 2024, https://www.latribune.fr/.

[civ] Samuel B.H. Faure, « Dix leviers pour rendre l’Europe de la défense “plus forte” », Le Rubicon, 29 février 2024.

 


Dimitri Minic is a researcher at Ifri’s Russia/​Eurasia Center. He holds a doctorate in the history of inter­na­tional relations from Sorbonne Univer­sity (2021) and is the author of Pensée et culture stratégiques russes (Russian strategic thinking and culture – Paris, Maison des sciences de l’homme, April 2023), a book based on his disser­ta­tion for which he received the Prix Albert Thibaudet 2023. His research focuses on Russian strategic thinking, the Russian army and Russian hybrid and high-intensity capa­bil­i­ties. He also works on the strategic and political culture of Russia’s politico-military elites and threat percep­tion.” 

Textende

This paper is published in the framework of the project „Russia and the West: Europe’s Post War Order and the Future of Relations with Russia“, which is supported by the German Foreign Ministry.  Any opinions in this paper are the author’s own.

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