France has always been proud of its armed forces. In fact, since General Charles de Gaulle, French politicians have promoted a stronger political union in Europe associated with robust European foreign and defense policy, what is known as “L’Europe de la defense” (loosely translated as European defense). And France’s next president will continue that enduring trend, whether Nicolas Sarkozy stays in power or François Hollande takes over the Elysée. At issue is how to best utilize the means at France’s disposal to strengthen European defense policy, be it through NATO or the European Union, which is a new way of looking at the issue in French politics.
France has long had difficult relations with NATO. A few years ago, Pierre Lellouche, a well-established academic turned politician, released a book whose title encapsulates the sentiment: France, the Indocile Ally. President Sarkozy broke a taboo when he decided that French forces would rejoin NATO’s integrated military structures in 2009, ending a forty-three-year hiatus.
Nicolas Sarkozy argued that it did not make sense for France to maintain a hybrid presence in the Alliance, remaining a dedicated NATO member but insisting on keeping its armed forces outside the organization. He reasoned that NATO and the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy should be seen as complementary, hence being more involved in NATO would help the union’s policy evolve. This rationale represented a departure from traditional French foreign policy thinking.
The other main contender in the presidential election, Socialist François Hollande, did not support Sarkozy’s decision at the time and has declared that this step has not given France significant additional leverage. Yet, he has said that he will not reverse the decision to reintegrate—for symbolic and institutional reasons but mainly for political ones.
NATO has indeed never been as European as it is today. The United States remains the strongest player, but it has called upon Europeans to take matters into their own hands. It is illogical to jeopardize French participation in an organization that can stimulate debate among Europeans. The Libyan campaign has also reaffirmed that NATO remains the best equipped organization for intensive military operations in face of EU torpor.
If elected, Hollande would however be less amicable to certain proposals. He has already said that he was “reluctant” to commit to NATO’s missile defense shield for Europe. He would also conduct an assessment of the French contribution to NATO. In concrete terms, he would consider whether France needs to maintain some 700 military staff within the NATO command structure because he feels that France has not been sufficiently rewarded for its contributions in the form of important positions and increasing influence.
Nicolas Sarkozy has adopted a pragmatic approach to redefine what lies behind L’Europe de la defense, fostering a new dynamic that includes the EU, NATO, and bilateral cooperation. In that sense, even Franco-British cooperation fits into the new narrative even though it has often been viewed as exclusively bilateral cooperation. This triggers an important debate about the kind of European defense France wants.
President Sarkozy thinks that France should engage with those who share compatible strategic ambitions and the political willingness to sustain significant efforts on defense. Should he be reelected, he might further embed this rationale into French strategic thinking, a process that would start with the new White Paper on Defense and National Security scheduled for this year.
François Hollande may adopt a more Gaullist approach, but he would not shift away from that trend. He is willing to politically reinvigorate L’Europe de la defense, but he understands that it would be counterproductive to put all his eggs in one basket. Hollande is aware that the European defense picture today is dire. In that sense, European cooperation in many forms could help avoid strategic devaluation.
Nonetheless, Hollande would still prefer that the European Union define the political framework for defense. In his opinion, with the European Council, the EU is the only institution that has the adequate political structures capable of devising and managing that framework. Moreover, entrusting the EU with defining a defense policy that could include NATO and various forms of bilateral cooperation would support the European project of building a more political union.
Sarkozy’s and Hollande’s visions would need to be well defined; a pragmatic approach will not suffice. For instance, the EU’s pooling and sharing initiative, NATO’s Smart Defense initiative, and bilateral cooperation can all be beneficial for maintaining capabilities, developing new ones, and reducing costs. But it will be difficult to devote the same level of attention to all fronts. Further complicating choices, capability discussions envisage concrete outcomes in the longer term, while cost decisions favor short-term benefits. Moreover, the EU and NATO may appear to be in competition in some areas; both, for instance, emphasize the need to develop intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. While duplication would be preposterous, Europeans have too often been schizophrenic in their approach to the two institutions.
The two candidates have not laid out a clear plan for prioritizing these efforts. So far, Sarkozy has favored a straightforward approach: France cooperates with interested and capable partners who can deliver right away. In that respect, he has been shunning institutions in growing defiance of unwieldy bureaucracies and decision-making processes that impede quick progress. Alain Juppé, the French foreign minister, has tried to rebalance this policy by pushing for progress on the EU front. François Hollande would likely articulate a more institutionally oriented approach, but the question of how to conceptualize and implement an effective and overarching strategy will remain salient.
Despite small differences in approach, in the end, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande do not fundamentally oppose each other’s stances on European defense. Both agree on the end goal: maintain French capabilities while improving European defense. Yet, their means to reach it contrast. Sarkozy has used institutions when they serve his purposes, such as NATO for the Libyan mission, but has otherwise favored bilateral defense cooperation, notably with Great Britain. Hollande would be less friendly to NATO’s initiatives and support a growing political role for the EU, but he would not reverse Sarkozy’s initiatives. The next French president, whoever that may be, will still have to address the core question of how to achieve concrete progress on European defense.
Vivien Pertusot is head of office in Brussels for the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). You can follow him on Twitter at @VPertusot.