The next French president will face a very different European and international environment from that in 2012, when President François Hollande arrived at the Élysée Palace. A resurgent Russia, the spread of terrorism in Europe, Brexit and the rise of nationalism in Europe, massive refugee flows, and the election of President Donald Trump in the United States will all require strong French leadership, cooperation with European and other partners, French military engagement, and more assertive international diplomacy.
Whoever is elected French president in the second-round runoff on May 7 will lead a major power of the EU and NATO, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and the eurozone’s second-largest economy. The evolutions in France’s economy and foreign policy in the five years to come will depend on the next president’s ability to efficiently use these assets of French power.
Far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron have opposite views of the world and France’s international role. Le Pen envisions a place for France in what she calls a new world of great powers shaped by a Washington-Paris-Moscow axis. Meanwhile, Macron firmly believes that France first needs to regain credibility and influence in Europe, to move toward more balanced co-leadership with Germany, while preserving France’s traditional alliances and interests abroad.
Europe and globalization have been the main dividing lines in this election campaign, with the debate about France’s independence at the center—independence vis-à-vis EU institutions and Germany, U.S. foreign policy, and traditional alliances. Considering France’s global engagement on security and diplomacy and its critical role in fighting terrorism in the Sahel alongside the United States, the election of the next president will be particularly decisive for the future of Europe and transatlantic cooperation.
The first diplomatic move by the next president, whether Le Pen or Macron, will take place in Europe. Both candidates recognize that business as usual is impossible and that EU institutions need to be reformed, but they propose very different approaches.
Le Pen’s opening initiative would be to launch negotiations with Brussels to restore France’s “legislative, territorial, economic and monetary sovereignty.” Such a renegotiation may lead to a French exit from the EU, or Frexit, which would represent a second earthquake after Britain’s decision in June 2016 to leave the bloc. Le Pen would find few allies in Europe, with the possible exception of Hungary or Poland, as she would try to renegotiate the EU’s passport-free Schengen zone. Yet the perspective of a potential Frexit has not resonated with most French people, who believe that France remains stronger as part of the EU. Polls suggest that a majority of French people are against Frexit, partly because they think it will make them poorer.
Macron’s first visit would be to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to revive the long-stalled French-German partnership. He acknowledges that Berlin will listen to Paris only if France first regains its credibility through economic reforms. The French presidential contest and the German parliamentary election in September 2017 offer the last chance for the liberal center to reform Europe. “The EU must reform or face Frexit,” as Macron put it.
The new French president’s first international meeting will be the informal NATO summit in Brussels on May 25. This will offer the president an opportunity to clarify France’s role in the alliance. Both candidates agree on the necessity to increase France’s defense budget to reach the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, but they disagree on the timeline: Macron’s horizon is 2025, while Le Pen wants to raise spending immediately, by reaching 2 percent in 2018 and 3 percent by 2022, which is unrealistic.
Le Pen has placed France’s independence at the heart of her program, which includes withdrawing from NATO’s integrated military command. Macron approaches independence through a different angle: he has a classic, Gaullist-Mitterrandian approach to France’s alliances. For Macron, NATO is part of France’s foreign policy; however, he also wishes to limit the alliance’s out-of-area operations to prioritize missions in which French interests are directly at stake.
Macron considers the United States France’s structural ally but does not hesitate to criticize Trump’s views, sees Germany as an irreplaceable partner, and views Brexit as an opportunity to attract business and talents in France. He is wary of a rapprochement with Moscow but recognizes the need to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria.
France will remain a critical player in the transatlantic alliance, especially in terms of fighting terrorism. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s calls for the next French president to continue France’s commitment to fighting terrorism in the Sahel were revealing of the U.S.-French special relationship in defense matters. The operation is a model of military burden sharing for Washington: France leads the anti-insurgent Operation Barkhane, while the United States provides air refueling and exchanges intelligence with French forces.
The fight against terrorism will remain France’s first priority at home and abroad. The central role played by current French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who is advising Macron and would probably remain in a Macron government, should reassure the U.S. administration. As early as May, Macron could also examine the different possibilities to reinforce France’s actions to counter terrorism in Libya, through institution and defense-capacity building. The challenge will be to find a way to articulate French strategic priorities in the Middle East and North Africa with an increasingly unilateral U.S. approach to counterterrorism in the region.
The novelty of the 2017 French presidential election campaign lies in the shared consensus that France needs to rethink its traditional alliances, in particular in the fight against terrorism, by partnering with powers like Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Gulf states. This shows that the candidates acknowledge that the international balance of power has shifted in favor of regional and local forces, at a time when the United States is redefining its strategic posture. Under Macron, France could potentially become both a selective partner and a challenger for the United States, Russia, the UK, or even Germany if he succeeds in reaffirming France’s diplomatic and economic profile in Europe and internationally.
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer is a senior transatlantic fellow and the director of the Paris Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. This blog post is the sixth in a set of contributions providing insights into the 2017 French presidential election.