Sophia BeschSenior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, Berlin
The issue is partly a question of motives, partly a question of process.
French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly made surprising foreign policy pitches and in turn had to face criticism from partners who feel they should have been consulted. Over time, Europe has come to rely on the well-oiled machine of the Macron-Versteher (one who understands Macron) commentariat, ready to contextualize his remarks and clear up misunderstandings.
On Russia in particular, Macron faces skepticism. His unilateral overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin, comments on NATO, and calls for a new European security framework have weakened his credentials.
Yet, the backlash against Paris is not entirely fair. European heads of state currently face a damned if you do (President Macron), damned if you don’t (German Chancellor Olaf Scholz) leadership dilemma. There are two main reasons.
First, while the search for a diplomatic offramp remains important, it appears increasingly unlikely that there exists a silver bullet proposal that could lead Putin to back down.
Second, individual European countries simply don’t have the internal legitimacy or external credibility to lead and, say, cut a deal with Moscow.
Instead, the way to create trust is through collective leadership: dividing up responsibility, coordinating visits to Moscow, Kyiv, and Washington, and forging a common European position by engaging in painstaking negotiations over country-specific interests. It’s less dramatic, but more effective.
Yves BoyerProfessor Emeritus at the École Polytechnique
Between states, interest and mistrust—even duplicity—reign as much as trust. In 2021, while French President Emmanuel Macron was attending the G7 summit, Washington and London were plotting the eviction of the French from selling submarines to Australia. Confidence was broken. Nevertheless, Franco-American military cooperation remains beyond excellent.
Trust is a matter of perception and is precarious without assurances that it is well-placed. It is therefore better to rely on objective realities. From this point of view, France occupies a unique place in Europe. It is one of the first initiators of the European construction from which certain member countries benefit today but who would like to cast doubt on the trust to be placed in France in the crisis with Moscow.
No one in Western Europe is an equal of France in the field of nuclear deterrence, which gives Paris special responsibilities with regard to Moscow. France cannot be relegated to the role of a passive spectator. Today, and this is the case with the Ukraine crisis, some in Paris regret the excessive weight several Central and Eastern European countries have on security matters. Their attitudes are mainly influenced by the United States, a characteristic that has been prevalent since the Iraq crisis in 2003.
Confidence is a relative notion and in any case, the French, with their European idea firmly in place, can be trusted to chart a course for European strategic autonomy.
David CadierAssistant professor of European Politics at the University of Groningen
Europeans harbor many suspicions about each other when it comes to Russia. As a researcher who has spent some time working on and in both Central Europe and France, I am only too aware of that.
But we need to move past stereotypical representations if we are to forge a common policy.
President Emmanuel Macron’s interview on the eve of his trip to Russia had triggered, once again, anxious reactions and criticism.
Yet, it turns out that some of these comments were partly mistranslated or misrepresented. In Moscow, Macron came out explicitly in favor of Ukrainian territorial integrity, of the security concerns of the Baltic states, of Sweden and Finland’s right to join NATO. And he extensively coordinated with France’s EU and NATO partners before and after the trip.
The French proclivity for débat d’idées (debate of ideas), which is exacerbated by Macron’s own taste for shock phrases and over-conceptualization, can be perplexing at times. But the point is often, precisely, to trigger a debate. EU partners should engage and come up with amendments or alternatives to these ideas.
On Macron’s Russia initiative, some criticisms have been aimed at getting the messenger to shoot down the message—or, worse, the debate. Yet, such a debate is direly needed. Let’s not make it about France or Emmanuel Macron. It’s about how EU member states should collectively respond to strategic instability at their borders, how to combine deescalation and deterrence without undermining either, how to support Ukraine’s sovereignty while engaging in a necessary discussion with Russia over the regional security order. All EU member states should contribute and be heard.
Olivier de FranceSenior research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs
Following Russia’s occupation of Eastern Europe during the first Crimean War, then German chancellor Otto von Bismarck scribbled a note in the margins of a diplomatic dispatch to Russian Prince Alexander Gorchakov. It read: “Who is Europe?”
Past and present European leaders have not always been able to provide an answer to the question. Emmanuel Macron’s recent endeavors in Ukraine suggests he is less reticent, and that his answer might be: “L’Europe, c’est moi” (“I am Europe”).
After Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, he is the third successive French leader to exert himself in the region. He is also the latest to succumb to the Fifth Republic’s unspoken law: faced with vexing domestic issues, such as a pandemic, the president needs to carve out a legacy on the external front—particularly in an election year.
European counterparts may argue that by doing so, French leaders have been known to confuse the constitution of the Fifth Republic with the Lisbon Treaty. Here, Europeans would be right. After all, when Louis XIV first explained that “L'État, c’est moi” (“I am the state”), the Treaty of Lisbon did not yet exist.
But this begs Bismarck’s fundamental question, as the Ukraine crisis festers on: if Macron is not Europe, who is?
Alexandra de Hoop SchefferDirector of the Paris office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States
The question is whether France is doing what it takes to be trusted by its European partners. The answer is yes. The exceptional intensity of the consultations undertaken by President Emmanuel Macron with his European partners before his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin illustrate that French diplomatic initiatives are not isolated but coordinated.
In the absence of an audible German policy, Macron stands out as the only European political figure capable of speaking on an equal footing with the Russian president. His decision to relaunch the Normandy format negotiations on the Donbas aims at complementing the U.S.-Russia bilateral negotiation process, by repositioning Europeans as actors in a crisis that primarily concerns their own security.
The French focus on a European approach is often perceived as undermining NATO and U.S. engagement in Europe. This completely misrepresents France’s ambitions, and underestimates the active role played by Paris in NATO’s reassurance missions since 2016.
France approaches the Russia-Ukraine crisis through a broader prism: the Russian show of force all around Europe, including in Africa, is seen from Paris as an attempt to create favorable conditions (for Russia) to review the overall European security architecture, and Macron believes that Europe needs to be proactive in modernizing some of its pillars (the Vienna document, conventional forces, NATO).
Macron has been asking the right questions but does not have the recipe. Instead of criticizing French initiatives, European partners should seize the opportunity to reflect themselves and develop their own policy on Russia and broader security issues.
Sylvie KauffmannEditorial director and columnist for Le Monde
It depends on which Europeans we’re talking about. The further East and the further North you go, the less trust you find. There is a hard core, particularly in the think tank community, that will always be suspicious. There are some reasons for it: the traditional “ally but non-aligned” line in French foreign policy and a propensity to grandstanding have caused irritation and misunderstandings.
Early in his presidential term, Emmanuel Macron fed this suspicion by launching solitary initiatives, notably on Russia, without consulting or informing his EU partners. His “brain-dead” comment about NATO should have been better prepared and explained.
But critics should be honest enough to recognize when France genuinely works for Europe. In the current crisis over Ukraine, Macron, as the leader of the nation holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, is a legitimate actor. He went out of his way to consult his partners, the United States, NATO, Poland, the Baltic states. He imposed a European voice when Putin had made clear he did not want to deal with Europe. It is in Europe’s interest to give him a chance.
Alena KudzkoDirector of the GLOBSEC Policy Institute, Bratislava
While Central Europeans trust that Macron is acting in good faith to elevate Europe’s role, there is little belief that Macron can succeed.
France has not been a major player in Eastern European security until now and failed to forge a common EU strategy toward Russia. Skepticism toward Macron’s approach is also rife. Even in less tense times, the French president’s initiative for dialogue with Russia yielded little in the way of improved relations. Why would he succeed now?
Macron has consulted his NATO and EU partners and demonstrated that he will hold the line. He also gets additional credit for reviving the Weimar triangle format with Poland and Germany after an eleven-year-long break.
But this is also why his efforts are seen as doomed to fail: Macron, lacking the ability to put any distinct deliverables on the table not already considered by NATO and the United States, makes for an uninteresting counterpart for Putin.
Despite this skepticism, it behoves Central Europeans to acknowledge that Macron is the best the EU has to offer. Outsourcing the issue to the United States entirely is hardly a viable solution. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz or the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell would garner even less enthusiasm.
Macron, meanwhile, gets the benefit of the doubt for his efforts. The setbacks of the French president, though, will likely only further reinforce a sentiment that banking on forthcoming diplomacy with Russia is counterproductive. If Europeans want to be at the table, they collectively need to put forward more effective solutions.
Philippe Le CorreNonresident Senior Fellow in the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
There is no straight answer to this question, as France has had a mix of friends and skeptics in Europe for decades. Among its closest allies are Greece, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, and now Italy, while “free marketeer” Scandinavians and Central Europeans have been the most suspicious.
This year, there is a sense that France wants to use its EU Council presidency to drive Europe out of NATO, while many European countries—especially former members of the Eastern bloc—prefer relying on the North Atlantic alliance for their security.
France’s position of striking a balance between the EU and NATO remains misunderstood by a majority of countries that were once part of the socialist bloc. Many of those critics, argues France, do not even reach NATO’s 2 percent defense spending threshold.
Post-Brexit, Emmanuel Macron’s proactive EU presidency is reminding Europeans that France remains a key diplomatic player in Europe, with a unique outreach. In an increasingly bipolar—or tripolar—world, every move to strengthen European defense should be welcomed. But with the ongoing Ukraine crisis, the French vision might come second to Eastern European countries’ security concerns.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior research fellow at the Polish Institute for International Affairs
It is not a question of trust in French President Emmanuel Marcon, it is a question of distrust in Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is blackmailing the EU with another military escalation in Europe.
Russia exploits the Western culture of dialogue and the West must again solve the problems that Russia creates. Currently, we are in a state of an information and psychological warfare, which Putin is handling brilliantly.
Notwithstanding this game of nerves, Emmanuel Macron has his own interests at stake, including reelection. Since 2019, France is in intensive dialogue with Russia because Paris has superpower ambitions.
The French president wants less United States and China in Europe—this is how he sees the strategic autonomy of the EU. However, Macron’s dream will not come true because the strategic alliance of the Chinese and Russian authoritarian regimes is already a fact.
Macron’s weakness and the lack of action on the part of the EU, among other factors, can give Russia an opportunity to play hard. During his last visit to Moscow, Macron said “Let us start building a response that is useful for Russia, useful for all of our Europe, a response that makes it possible to avoid war (…).” But what is useful for Russia contradicts peace in Europe.
Bruno MaçãesSenior adviser at Flint Global
Unfortunately, French President Emmanuel Macron seems captured by a number of misguided concepts that keep hampering France’s contributions to the development of a stronger EU foreign and defense policy. He cannot get rid of a civilizational worldview where Russia is a brother and partner in the clash with Islam and China, a philosophy shared only by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
Second, Macron keeps adopting a performative kind of politics that prioritizes diplomatic coups over substance. This week for example, while making an effort to consult more closely with EU partners, he could not help adding that Russia suffers from historical traumas and must be comforted and assuaged. Macron, who so often speaks in the name of a nascent European sovereignty movement, did little or nothing to advance it, at least in his first term as president.
Denis MacShaneFormer UK minister for Europe
Like other big post-war French presidents including Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, President Emmanuel Macron provokes admiration and dislike in equal measure. After the dull do-little Angela Merkel years and the absence of big leadership from any other EU capital or anti-EU nationalist leaders in Warsaw, Budapest or Brexit London, Macron is the only game in town.
On Ukraine, he has made clear France defends NATO’s current line, the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, the need to consult with U.S. President Joe Biden, and the right of Russia’s Baltic and East European neighbors not to be bullied by Putin.
Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, Winston Churchill said, and UK ministers have been talking to the Kremlin as they should. Yet when Macron proposes to talk to President Vladimir Putin, those hostile to a strong EU and who are ready to fight to the last Ukrainian get very excited and start denouncing Macron.
Sadly, the constant undermining of EU values—judicial independence, media freedom, and rule of law—by some of the new EU member states plays into Putin’s hands. He hates the idea of Ukraine getting closer to Europe and the EU and opposes Macron’s belief in a stronger Europe.
No EU member state will send troops to Ukraine. Putin won’t listen to Macron, but do Macron haters have an alternative policy?
Pol MorillasDirector of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)
Macron’s grandiloquent diplomacy and strategic enterprises often face material circumstances and harsh realities. Not so long ago, he declared NATO “brain-dead”. Ahead of the adoption of a new strategic concept that should modernize the Alliance’s purpose and strategic thinking, territorial rivalries and the conflict in Ukraine bring the Alliance back to its confrontation with the original enemy.
When all Europeans were asked to push Macron’s reset button toward Russia, the Kremlin strengthened its revisionist policies and built up a military presence in the EU’s eastern neighborhood. So, it is perhaps not Macron’s ambition in EU foreign policy that troubles many member states and institutions, but his pompous ambitions in highly divisive and complex theaters.
Some fear that European sovereignty will eventually be about benefiting France’s share of power and capabilities in the EU. Central and Eastern Europeans and the Baltics fear distancing from the United States because a more French EU would never be able to replace Washington’s clout. And Southern Europeans blame France for going it alone when more joint positions could be forged.
Pro-integration Europeans acknowledge that France will never cease to be the indispensable partner for a more global EU, both diplomatically and in terms of capabilities. Albeit reluctantly, France also knows that it cannot go it alone or lead the EU in which the United States remains the only protector of the European security architecture.
Sten RynningProfessor in the faculty of Business and Social Sciences at the University of Southern Denmark
If France’s President Emmanuel Macron could be trusted to do something, it surely was to go to Moscow and seek to stop the slide into war. Having credible interlocutors matters. Russia has made demands to NATO so outlandish that the sure response was going to be a stern rejection. Tensions thus grow.
At some point a country like France would have to offer a ladder for Putin’s climb down from the height of rage. And Paris does have the right credentials: a maverick reputation inside the Western camp.
When we speak of trust, though, the tricky question is whether Macron was going solo or acted the part in a tightly coordinated Western diplomatic move. The fact is that we do not know. Thus, we do not know whether Macron’s slight indication of a special neutral status for Ukraine was France bending to Russia or merely the face of a coordinated Western move to buy Ukraine time.
There is a bit of a rush among pundits to go with the former. But in the theater of high drama, perhaps the smart money should be on trust in coordinated Western diplomacy.