France must balance diplomatic panache with a dash of humility

The writer is managing director at McLarty Associates, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of ‘Henry Kissinger, l’Européen’ 

Whoever wins Sunday’s presidential election in France will have to reorient the country’s foreign policy in fundamental ways. This is because two significant and ongoing shifts are in the process of transforming the EU.

The first is the emergence of Germany as an “all-domain” power. Franco-German leadership in Europe long rested on a tacit allocation of responsibilities. Germany was the dominant industrial and trade power, while France offered a counterbalance with its defence credibility and active foreign policy. However, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcement, at the end of February, of a €100bn fund to modernise the country’s military has upset this fragile balance.

The second major change is the increased confidence and assertiveness of several central and eastern European nations, notably Poland. Controversial judicial reforms had previously brought the Law and Justice government in Warsaw into conflict with Brussels, but the war in Ukraine, during which Poland has shown extraordinary generosity towards Ukrainian refugees, has changed things completely.

How will France respond to what look to be profound changes in the EU’s power dynamics? Were the Europhobic far-right presidential challenger Marine Le Pen to win on Sunday, she would undoubtedly continue to bemoan the decline of France. Playing on the electorate’s worst instincts, she would continue to fulminate against an EU dominated by Berlin. But even for a passionate pro-European like President Emmanuel Macron, the temptation to try to reaffirm French leadership with grandiose diplomatic gestures would be hard to resist.

However, such a reversion to type would be a very serious mistake. France’s European partners and other powers, including the US, would recognise it immediately as a sign of weakness and insecurity. Instead, the winning candidate should do three things to respond to the new dispensation in Europe.

The first will be to ensure France continues to be Europe’s engine of ideas — as indeed it has been during Macron’s presidency. Many of the French leader’s proposals have been controversial in Brussels but few would dispute that bold proposals from Paris, such as those on European “strategic autonomy” that have now been vindicated by the Ukrainian crisis, have shaped the EU agenda and prompted constructive debate. They have also helped France to regain the European influence that was eroded during François Hollande’s single term in the Elysée Palace.

The second task is to pursue an agenda of structural reform that will enable France to become an all-domain actor of the kind Germany now aspires to be. Rather than fearing or resenting the emergence of Germany as a defence power, French leaders should be asking themselves how to make their country a more credible economic, industrial and trade partner. That will require painful political choices — like the overdue reform of the pension system already advocated by Macron — but it is the only way to rebalance the Franco-German relationship.

Finally, the winner of this election will need to counterbalance France’s traditional diplomacy of panache with a diplomacy of humility.

A diplomacy of humility would entail France strengthening its ties with all its European partners, especially the countries of central, eastern and northern Europe. This will involve attempting to better understand the historical background of these nations and the domestic political constraints under which they operate. Rather than indulging its natural inclination to grandiloquence, France should choose the path of sobriety and real dialogue. Rather than always craving the spotlight, it should gain the confidence of its partners by building coalitions and shaping compromises in the seclusion of Europe’s chancelleries.

Humility has never been France’s greatest strength. Nor does it necessarily come naturally to the country’s leaders. But on the eve of an election that will be decisive for the future of Europe, it is clear that only Macron is capable of carrying the kind of reorientation of French foreign policy that is so urgently required. Success will depend on whether he can find the confidence — and be given a sufficiently strong mandate — to build a new French approach that combines the country’s traditional diplomatic creativity and flair with a determined commitment to partnerships that would be entirely new.