Macron’s ambitions shift Europe from Trans-Atlantic bond to strategic autonomy in the Indo-Pacific

By Eunwoo Lee

Until recently, the integrity and existential grounds of NATO had remained in tatters. Former US President Donald Trump repeatedly battered the military alliance, even threatening his non-engagement in the European theater in case of a Russian invasion. His successor, Joe Biden, further diminished its credibility by staging an uncoordinated withdrawal from Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Europe, disparate expectations among member states for NATO’s defense contribution and functions had led to multiple internal schisms. France’s second-term president, Emmanuel Macron, disparaged the organization as paralyzed by “brain death.”

Yet, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has injected it with a renewed sense of camaraderie and purpose. The West has coalesced in showering Ukraine with a plethora of military aid and platitudes of support. Although the catastrophic clash in the eastern corner of Europe seemingly bolsters the trans-Atlantic bond, Europe under Macron will further seek strategic autonomy and will not be a docile ally for the US in the long term. The fact that the West has managed to present a more or less united front against Russia’s aggression has more to do with visceral reaction to reports of civilian killings than with mutual affinity. From geostrategic fronts down to personal ambitions of Macron, Europe looks to chart its own course.

Macron’s Renewed Mandate and France’s Clout in the EU

“France is indeed an Indo-Pacific power,” declared Macron, in May 2018 at Garden Island off the southwest coast of Australia in the Indian Ocean. It was the first time a European power adopted the term to describe its strategic approach to the region. Given Britain’s exit from the European Union, however, Macron’s reiteration of “strategic autonomy” for Europe throughout his first tenure sounded like his personal mantra for increased French clout in the union. With hardly any external support for such conception at the time, his foreign endeavors yielded little more than a mild diversion from mounting international and domestic pressure.

France has experienced an unceasing flow of refugees from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa. Brexit had painfully dragged on. Almost a third of Macron’s first tenure was plagued by gilets jaunes protests – people aggrieved by widening inequality and rising fuel taxes took to the streets wearing yellow vests only to be ruthlessly quashed by the police. On a daily level, the specter of terrorism, arising from France’s deep foreign entanglement and its domestic sociopolitics split between republican and religious values, hardly dissipates. The heightened presence of the gendarmerie and police, and their wary roaming and glances remind residents that something must be fishy. And covid, of course, ripped apart what little domestic consensus there was.

Still, Macron’s first presidency coincided with some of the most salient developments in early modern European history. It was during his first administration that the need for a stronger EU had become apparent. The successful visualization by EU member states of NextGenerationEU, the union’s covid pandemic recovery plan worth €806 billion ($838 billion), underlined the importance of the bloc’s holistic well-being and collective strength.

Most importantly, Macron has presided over a time when Chinese influences around the globe have so intensified and diversified that global discourses spin around the dawn of a bipolar world. Hence, he started facing the need for a stronger French presence in the Indo-Pacific. After all, with its island territories scattered far and wide around the region, France is as large a regional stakeholder as the United States and Australia. Over time, his call back in 2018 and almost 9,000 miles from home for stronger regional alliances and French roles, has begun to hit closer to home.

Regardless of how he secured his second presidential term in April 2022 – with the left abjectly disunited and the right tilting too far-right, he seemed the safest choice – it is undeniable that his continued presence in the Élysée Palace projects stability abroad. Despite his aloofness and shortcomings on some domestic fronts, representing continuity abroad and his extensive experience with existing world leaders seemed to reassure the French voters.

As this year’s president of the Council of the European Union, made up of heads and ministers of 27 European governments, Macron has a better chance at persuading his fellow leaders to adopt a more French-tuned outlook on internal and foreign affairs. Considered the highest decision-making body, as the leaders hammer out general EU policy directions and adopt their tones for international agreements, this is where personal charm and charisma matter. Precisely due to this nature and a state’s influence within the EU depending on its economic might, former German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure from the political stage in December 2021 boosts Macron’s stature.

Within the EU, France and Germany pack the heftiest political and military punch. During Macron’s first term, Europe’s major crises such as immense refugee influxes and the covid pandemic have been dealt with primarily through the collaboration between the two. During the sixteen years she spent in leading Germany and the EU, she exerted such stamina and gumption in getting the other leaders on board and spearheading European strategies for seminal problems. One cannot think of the Financial Crisis of 2008, Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea in 2014 and subsequent EU sanctions, and Germany’s decision to embrace millions of refugees without her matriarchal image.

Now she is gone. Olaf Scholtz, former finance minister under Merkel and her successor as chancellor, simply aspires to be her replica. Although he hails from a rival party, he knows his political survival relies on imitating his predecessor. His coalition government has to cater to numerous interests, making casting his own political frame that much harder. Meanwhile, Macron resurfaced with another five-year presidential term and a new mandate for his policies. Now is his prime. As Matthias Matthijs of Johns Hopkins University puts it, Macron possesses “this kind of macho, Jupiterian ambition.”

Macron’s Ambitions for More European, or French, Control

He has already placed himself at the helm. With his power gradually solidifying within the union, he has become more willful and at ease to profess his own suggestions. The most striking recent example is his proposal for an “European political community” to include Ukraine and the United Kingdom outside the EU’s boundary to exert stronger diplomatic and military influences.

This sort of forming a preemptive strategic posture reveals his desire to take back control of what transpires on Europe’s doorstep. Prior to the war in Ukraine, he smarted from how America and NATO shunted France aside in forging a dialogue with Russia concerning the immense military buildup. Shortly before the war, he flew to Moscow himself to dress down Vladimir Putin for hours on the need for de-escalation. This is the exact type of diplomatic pomp and attention that suits Macron’s global ego.

He has taken a front seat in trying to influence the outcome of the war. He has dramatically increased military aid to Ukraine, including France’s advanced howitzers, Caesar, and numerous anti-tank missiles. In an attempt to shape the contour of peace and dialogue, he urged Ukraine and its allies not to humiliate Putin and expedite the peace process even if it means territorial cession to Russia. The scope of his diplomatic ambition stretches beyond Europe.

In February, Paris hosted the first-ever Ministerial Forum for Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific. The fact that France excluded the United States and China from the forum and that its Indo-Pacific strategy came to fruition in less than a year presages more autonomy for Europe. It also signifies the “gradually developing European political influence in a region that demands alternatives to a strict choice between the US and China.”

Macron, in particular, has all the more reason to pioneer a French-made third prong that sidelines the US and China and prevents them from having all the say and sway. The ruckus over the AUKUS deal signed last September between the US, UK, and Australia is just the tip of the iceberg. Australia unilaterally jilted France over a submarine project to opt for nuclear-powered submarines supplied by its Anglophone allies.

The spat spilled into the personal realm as Macron accused his former Australian counterpart, Scott Morrison, of back-stabbing and the latter shattered diplomatic trust by publicizing personal texts between the two leaders. France retaliated by snubbing Australia from its formulation of the Indo-Pacific vision later that year. Fortunately, Macron can expect a better relation with Australia’s new prime minister, Anthony Albanese, in terms of combating climate change, which represents the most pressing and thorniest trouble to the Pacific region, their mutual turf. Besides the broken trust and environmental neglect showcased by Morrison, France has other more important geostrategic rationales for boosting its presence in the Indo-Pacific and Macron’s personal regional influence.

The French Stake

The French defense ministry defines its “security continuum” as “spreading from the East African coastline to the Western American seaboard.” Extending from Mayotte near the Mozambique Channel all the way to Clipperton, a coral reef in the Eastern Pacific, the Indo-Pacific contains over 90 percent of France’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the world’s second largest. There are around 1.6 million French citizens residing in the French territories in the region. Of particular interest are the French islands in the Pacific, which, combined together, represent more than half a million French citizens and 60 percent of France’s global EEZ, and whose physical remit is much closer to China.

The enormity of the French maritime interests corresponds to the staggering amount of trade conducted within the Indo-Pacific. For instance, the South China Sea, a conduit between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean, conducts one-third of global sea-route trade. Economists estimate that disruption of the passageway endangers $5.3 trillion worth of goods, possibly triggering “a global economic crisis.” Recent geostrategic developments point to how tenuously markets are connected and how easily trade flows are disrupted. US-China trade rows and Russian naval blockade in the Black Sea are merely tasters of what would ensue on a larger scale. By all means, it benefits France to be able to serve as a mediating third power to prevent US-China bilateral troubles from afflicting world trade.

Maritime security is needed not only for trade but also for clearer and more forceful regulation of the fishery in the vast expanse of the two oceans. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, fishing and aquaculture sectors engage almost 60 million people around the globe. Considering that 3.3 billion people glean 20 percent of their average intake of protein from fish, tightening the noose on illegal, unregulated fishing is crucial for the perpetuity of the industry and biodiversity. This gives credence to Macron’s imperative of consolidating the French exercise of its competence and sovereignty in its EEZ to fend off marine pollution and degradation.

China’s Expanding Front Yard

By all accounts, however, China funds and feeds illicit fishing raids involving environmentally ravaging methods into other countries’ EEZ to satiate its ever-growing domestic demand and to brandish its increasing regional influence. Besides building military facilities and missile batteries on disputed reefs in the South China Sea, China has greatly extended its tentacles in the Pacific. The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, reports that China has showered Pacific islands with $8 billion so far, which represents almost 20 percent of the total aid to the region. Moreover, the Australian National University found out that the total value of Chinese trade with the Pacific islands excluding Papua New Guinea surpassed that of Australia within the region in 2017. For example, China absorbs more than 60 percent of the Solomon Islands’ total export.

Economic largesse and increasing mutual interests through migration and trade translate into more global leverage. In the past three years, China signed a furtive deal with Cambodia to use the latter’s navy base, initiated a partial militarization of a Chinese-run port in the United Arab Emirates, and tried to convince Equatorial Guinea for a naval outpost in the Atlantic. The US Department of Defense predicted in 2020 that the African Atlantic coastline would host Chinese military facilities in the near future. Overall, there are now 90 ports in the world partly or entirely owned or managed by China.

And then in 2019, China successfully cajoled the Solomon Islands and Kiribati to shift their diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. Ever since, China provided the Solomon Islands with infrastructure support, material donations, and police training. Their bilateral relationship culminated in a security pact announced in April 2022 that allows China to “carry out logistical replenishment in, and have stopover and transition in Solomon Islands” as well as to dispatch Chinese forces for internal security. Most recently, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, staged an island-hopping tour of the Pacific, signing an agreement with Samoa guaranteeing “greater collaboration” in economic and security fields. Whether or not more island nations will follow suit remains foggy.

In contrast, the West had grown lackluster in propping up its regional leverage until the security pact raised the prospect of China’s construction of a naval base in the Solomon Islands. So far, the Western zeal has principally been in flaunting its naval fleet. Even the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, announced in late May by the US and its allies, would hardly wrench trade flows back from China without trade tariffs reduction. The US embassy in the Solomon Islands closed in 1993 and Anthony Blinken’s visit to Fiji in February 2022 was the first time in four decades that a US Secretary of State set foot in the island. Australia terminated its shortwave radio services for the Pacific in 2017, on which remote islanders deprived of access to FM signals and the Internet had relied for crucial news and disaster warnings. Meanwhile, China Radio International has filled that void, now broadcasting to the region on the same frequencies deserted by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Among EU member states, France is the only one with ambassadors in residence for the Pacific Island Countries.

Macron’s Means at Disposal

Now caught up in the scramble for regional interests and influence, Macron may enlarge on three fronts to provide regional alternatives. First off is the French military. The three high commands in French Polynesia, New Caledonia, and the South Indian Ocean Zone – all designated as sovereign forces – are capable of land, sea, and air operations. The French navy constitutes a crucial link in Macron’s effort to enhance naval deployments and connect French resources. The annual Jeanne d’Arc amphibious missions reaffirm France’s global strategic interests through regional exercises.

Strategically and scientifically important assets reside in the French purview, such as a satellite monitoring station in the Kerguelen Islands in the southern Indian Ocean, and a listening station and minerals in New Caledonia. For its vastness, French Polynesia had served as a site for numerous nuclear tests, and now hosts surveillance missions. However, former French Defense Minister Charles Millon writes that “France cannot be considered a great power compared to the heavyweights that are active in the region.” This is precisely what Macron wants to change. He has territorial, strategic, and legal grounds to establish itself as a regional heavyweight.

The second front comprises cultural influences and soft power. Organisation Internationale de Francophonie(OIF) represents a bloc of 88 countries sharing similar outlooks on cultural and democratic values. Through 300 million French-speaking people around the world, the organization strives to spread its value systems through the language.

“Launched as a cultural and linguistic association, Francophonie wants to expand into the political arena,” says Maëlle Gendrier, a Francophonie culture specialist at the British Embassy in Paris. Although member states pursue different political interests, “if they keep working towards a common political agenda, it would become a powerful tool for France to promote Western values,” she adds. Madagascar and Vietnam, for instance, formed a tacit alliance with France in terms of emanating the same soft power. “This way,” she says, “France can eventually loom over the region without constant, direct engagement, safeguard its existing sphere of influence, and assert a stronger political impact.” Moreover, the French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs oversees the world’s third largest network of representation and activity abroad. This human capital, together with the Francophonie, can come in handy for Macron to broker favorable regional deals.

Lastly, France would enhance its regional role through more quality aid. Consisting of islands, atolls, and archipelagos exposed to rising sea levels, Pacific nations are not only the most vulnerable to natural disasters but also the most dependent on foreign aid. Agence Française de Développment, a French arm of overseas aid, also identifies poor digital connectivity and polarization of the region by regional competitors as contributing to low trade flows.

The EU’s Global Gateway scheme, aimed at tackling climate change and improving health security outside of Europe, doles out €300 billion ($315 billion) over the next few years. Although it is a commendable start, generating lasting quality aid should take precedence over quantity. Alongside the two biggest regional donors, Australia and New Zealand, France and Europe can pitch in more by expanding labor markets, streamlining trade terms, and more openly offering technology and expertise. Teaching fishing skills is more important than giving out fish.

Now that Macron clinched a second presidential term in April 2022, the next five years – or seven, should he succeed in amending the constitutional term limit – will cement Macron’s vision of his personal strategic autonomy. So far, how France fares in the Pacific remains to be seen.

Eunwoo Lee is an independent journalist and policy analyst based in Paris. Previously, he had served at South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. His articles have appeared at The Diplomat, The Japan Times, and The Meridian Magazine.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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