The relationship between the next French head of state and U.S. President Donald Trump will be key for European security. Although he is not popular in France, some of Trump’s views on defense and security could, paradoxically, be considered typical traditional French positions.
Trump would like European allies to take on much more of the military burden of protecting Europe and to spend more on their defense. France has long argued that Europeans should be more autonomous on defense and has been the most military active European member of NATO in recent years, with over 30,000 soldiers deployed domestically and internationally. Moreover, there is widespread political support to increase French defense spending, which currently stands at 1.8 percent of GDP according to NATO figures, along with security funding, such as for police and intelligence services.
Three of the five main candidates in France’s 2017 presidential election—center-right François Fillon, Socialist Benoît Hamon, and centrist Emmanuel Macron—have committed to increasing defense spending to at least 2 percent of GDP. Another contender, far-right Marine Le Pen, would like to raise it to an impressive 3 percent. In contrast, the average for European members of NATO is just under 1.5 percent. Few serious French politicians run on a political program to reduce defense spending or scrap France’s nuclear-weapons program.
Trump’s security priority is to defeat the self-proclaimed Islamic State, and he says that the United States should be much more bellicose toward Islamist terrorists. Outgoing French President François Hollande and some of his ministers have described their struggle with Islamist terrorists as a “war,” language most Europeans previously thought to belong mainly to American neoconservatives from the administration of former president George W. Bush.
Moreover, Hollande has put his words into practice. Alongside increased bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq, since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris the French government has imposed a domestic state of emergency, which grants the executive and security services special powers, such as searches without judicial warrants. This has been extended until July 15, 2017, a period that includes the upcoming presidential election and is the longest uninterrupted state of emergency in France since the Algerian War in the 1950s and 1960s.
Like Trump, France has sometimes been suspected of being too Russia friendly (although Paris canceled a delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Moscow after the 2014 annexation of Crimea and is currently sending up to 300 soldiers to the UK-led NATO battalion in Estonia). Three of the main French presidential candidates—Le Pen, Fillon, and far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon—favor rebuilding a strategic partnership with Russia, arguing that Paris should work with Moscow rather than against it.
Just as Trump has been, France was ambiguous and sometimes skeptical of the usefulness of the Atlantic alliance before rejoining the NATO military command in 2009. Some NATO skepticism persists in France. The same three Russia-friendly presidential candidates are suspicious of the United States pursuing its interests through NATO. Le Pen favors leaving the NATO military command, while Mélenchon wants to leave the alliance altogether.
France, again like the United States, is prepared to act unilaterally if necessary, such as in its 2013 military intervention in Mali. But the key difference with Trump is that France, which is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the UN Security Council, generally prefers to act through multilateral institutions. In particular, France is strongly committed to the European Union, whereas Trump has been nonchalant about the EU’s future.
France has made a number of concrete proposals with Germany for strengthening EU military cooperation. But few French have overly ambitious expectations of the potential for the Franco-German partnership to develop substantially stronger EU military policies. The current German government strongly opposes French proposals to exclude some (if not all) defense spending from EU budget deficit calculations, as suggested by Hamon.
With Trumpish tones, Fillon has even argued that France should be compensated for its military operations in Africa, because they protect European security. And in contrast to many German politicians, no French president would call for a European army (with its federalist overtones). What more French would prefer is a strong Europe de la défense, meaning a full-blown intergovernmental EU military alliance—which France would lead.
In addition, despite Britain’s decision to leave the EU, the next French president will want to continue working closely with the UK on military matters. French strategic culture is much closer to that of Britain than to that of Germany. As Macron said the day after the March 2017 terrorist attack in London, “I want more European defense but I’m a realist -- in coming years, there is little chance of making it effective. . . . So I’m for structured cooperation with Germany and the U.K.”
The next French president will also likely want to continue Franco-American military cooperation. The most supportive NATO ally of French military actions in recent years has been the United States, which, for instance, has provided aerial refueling and troop transportation for France’s 2013 intervention and ongoing operation in Mali.
Trump’s questioning of the future viability of NATO and the EU may create both opportunities and challenges for the next French president. The opportunity may be to reinforce a leading role on European defense for France as the strongest military power that is a member of both the EU and NATO. The challenge may be to increase the military burden on France if Trump scales back the U.S. military commitment to European security. Were France to carry more of that burden, the country might end up being in a stronger position to set a defense agenda for Europe—and NATO.
Daniel Keohane is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zürich.