Strategic Europe continues its series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). This week, the spotlight is on France.

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France’s foreign policy ambitions are high, scoring an assertive 5 out of 5. This is a product of history, from the victorious end of the Hundred Years’ War in the mid-fifteenth century to modern times; of cultural attitudes (the word “modesty,” in its English meaning, does not exist in French); and of geography, which makes France both a continental and a maritime power, a country of the North and of the South.

The powers of the French president under the Fifth Republic, like those of his U.S. counterpart, guarantee that every head of state is, or quickly becomes, a foreign policy leader. That ensures that foreign affairs always have first-rank status.

France’s economic ranking has been shrinking, and with it, the budgetary means to sustain the tools of foreign power and influence. But this has not led to a downscaling of ambitions in recent years. Other European countries are not performing better in the longer run. It may come as a surprise to some that France’s growth rate since the introduction of the euro in 1999 has exceeded that of Germany and of the eurozone as a whole.

As for emerging powers, only China has the wherewithal to outrank France in external policy clout, while India still possesses a foreign service about the size of Belgium’s. Russia is less powerful than the former Soviet Union, and Brazil, a close partner of France, is hampered by a European rate of growth. Meanwhile, Japan is transfixed by its geopolitical situation between rising China and its U.S. guarantor.

In such a context, France will want to continue maximizing the diplomatic leverage provided by the projection of military force and by the country’s status as both a nuclear power and a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Paris will also continue to benefit from the soft power of the Francophone world and from France’s strong positions in the sale of so-called goods of sovereignty in the fields of aerospace, defense, energy, and transportation infrastructure.

France can justify the maintenance of a high-profile external policy by the fact that it carries benefits whether or not the EU develops an active, broad-spectrum foreign and security policy. If the EU builds up a collective ability to act on the global stage, France will have every reason to do what it takes to be at the heart of the upstream production of European foreign policy, along with Britain and Germany. If the EU remains a surrogate and disjointed external actor, France will have no particular reason to change its current ambitions.

Each French president is, or quickly becomes, a foreign policy leader.
 
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However, an ambitious external policy as France’s default option may be challenged or even derailed under certain circumstances.

An unlikely, but no longer unthinkable, accession to power of the National Front would massively isolate France from its natural partners of the West, inside and outside the EU framework. As was obvious in the aftermath of the January 2015 terrorist attacks, the National Front remains an unreconstructed extreme-right party and will presumably remain so when the 2017 presidential and legislative elections take place.

A very different challenge could occur if Britain were to leave the EU as the result of an in-out referendum, which British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold by 2017. In this case, France’s foreign policy profile could appear as an anomaly in an EU whose overall strategic and diplomatic culture would be closer to the herbivorous instincts of a geopolitically (and not only economically) dominant Germany than to those of an assertive but peripheral France.

This would in turn give Paris an incentive to block further development of an EU external policy. France could also be tempted to co-opt like-minded states to balance Germany, in a soft but uninspiring reminder of policies that properly belong to another age.

Herein lies a paradox. In the diplomatic and military spheres, Paris and London have every incentive to mutually support each other in their endeavor to punch above their weight, to paraphrase former British foreign secretary Douglas Hurd. Indeed, this generally is the case, as in the 2010 Lancaster House Treaties, which notably reinforce both countries’ long-term status as nuclear powers, or in the pair’s day-to-day cooperation in the UN Security Council.

Neither #France nor Britain is doing much to avoid a #Brexit.
 
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Yet the political leadership of neither country is doing much to diminish the risks of a British exit from the EU, whether in the expression of national positions on the future of the EU or in discussions on the issue within the EU institutions. The UK takes little heed of French sensitivities concerning the future of the EU; and France responds in kind in a manner that can suggest that Britain’s exit would cause Paris to shed no tears. This set of attitudes is a self-defeating anomaly that should be addressed after the UK’s May 2015 general election.

Despite these potential challenges to its foreign policy stature, Paris remains an ambitious actor on the global stage. Thanks to the considerable benefits that such a role brings, France is likely to maintain its significant level of external engagement for the foreseeable future.

 

François Heisbourg is a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research.