The French exception: myth or reality?

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VoxEurop, 2 September 2021

After the joint statement in March 2021 by Pedro Sanchez and Mark Rutte, the Spanish and Dutch prime ministers, it is now the turn of Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister, to speak out in favour of abolishing the unanimity rule in foreign policy. There has been no shortage of reactions. One of them, from Jean Quatremer 1, was interesting in several respects. Firstly, because the author has been reporting on European issues for more than thirty years to the readers of Libération and, until recently, through his blog “Les Coulisses de Bruxelles” – to a large French-speaking audience as well as to the Brussels microcosm. Secondly, and above all, because Jean Quatremer can hardly be described as an opponent of European integration. It therefore seems to us to be particularly emblematic of a reflexive French idea, one not limited to the heirs of Gaullism and sovereigntists, nor simply to elites – that of the French exception.

Jean Quatremer is of course right when he says that France has been opposed to the use of qualified majority voting in matters of foreign, security and defence policy “consistently, whatever the majorities in power, and this since the negotiation of the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which gave some powers in this area to the Union”.

Thus, according to him, “(France) is the only country (member of the EU) to have a global vision of the world, interests to defend in most of the countries of the planet and, above all, an army more or less worthy of the name.” The tone is set. But what is the substance behind these ideas?

“An army (more or less) worthy of the name”

Firstly, the true measure of France’s armed forces must be established. Comparisons with the armies of the other EU member states are of limited relevance. Most of these armies are set up not to defend their own country alone but as part of an organisation, NATO, which ensures the defence of all the countries that belong to it.

It is undeniable that there has been a determination, at least since the arrival of General de Gaulle at the top of the French government in 1958, to configure the French army so as to enable it to defend French territory against external threats or, at the very least, to “hold its own” 2. However, the practical implementation of this ambition is more up for debate.

In a remarkable article, “Illusions of autonomy: why Europe cannot ensure its security if the United States withdraws” 3, Hugo Meijer and Stephen G. Brooks show that from both a political and military standpoint, Europe, including France, would not be able to ensure its defence without the help of the Americans. 4 Let us leave aside the political dimension of the problem – we will come back to it later – and look at the military dimension.

As the authors point out, Russia’s mastery of the A2/AD strategy of “denial of access and area denial” 5 means that European countries must have a “land-based resistance capability – and therefore land-based assets” 6 in case of an invasion. The figures are, from this point of view, indisputable: the five large countries of the Union 7 had some 11,500 tanks in 1990 compared to 1,500 today. Russia alone appears to have some 2,600 8 tanks as of 2020.

But Europe’s weakness does not end there. In the crucial area of “Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)” or C4ISR 9, the EU countries cannot compare with Russia. The authors use the number of military satellites in the various countries as an indicator of their mastery of this tool. Here again the figures are clear: United States: 209; Russia: 104; EU countries: 34, including 12 for France.

This weakness was already evident during the Franco-British intervention in Libya in 2011. The authors point out that “the United States had to provide critical capabilities such as air-to-air refuelling, suppression of enemy air defences, intelligence, target acquisition and reconnaissance” 10. For the same reasons – the limited autonomous intervention capabilities of European armies, including those of armies “more or less worthy of the name” (sic) – President François Hollande was forced in 2013 to give up intervening in Syria after President Obama’s about-face.

Moreover, according to Meijer and Brooks, in the event of an American withdrawal from the European continent, there would be major repositioning. The Russian threat, considered a priority, would lead to a rapprochement between Germany and the United Kingdom. Meanwhile, France would continue to give priority to its Mediterranean “interests” at the cost of “reasonable accommodation” with Russia.

While this option is militarily somewhat 11 plausible because of France’s nuclear deterrent, the question is whether it is politically tenable. It is highly unlikely that the European Union would survive such a scenario. Unless one doubts that one of President Putin’s main strategic objectives is, alongside restoration of the borders of the Russian empire, the disintegration of the European Union – as amply demonstrated by the support given by the Kremlin to Brexit, to playing up the Catalan question, to the French and Italian sovereignty movements, etc – there is little doubt that in such circumstances the Kremlin would already have carried out a “rescue operation” for Russian speakers living in one of the Baltic countries, thereby causing the implosion of the EU. The economic consequences would also be particularly severe. The end of the euro would lead to an explosion in the spread of southern countries, including France. With public debt already largely out of control, the consequences in budgetary terms would be disastrous.

A first conclusion should therefore be drawn. For the countries of the European Union, there is no alternative to NATO and to American involvement in the defence of the European continent in the short and medium term.

However, for a large part of the elites but also of French public opinion, France’s vital interests are not threatened by Russia. The French authorities continue to reason in terms of threats as if France were playing alone in the concert of European nations, and as if France could “live” and develop without a Union that is by far its most important economic and trading partner 12 and a powerful instrument for defending and promoting its commercial interests on the world stage. Thus, for many French people, the cohesion of the Union, which would be destroyed by the annexation of part of the territory of a Baltic country, does not constitute a vital interest for their country. To them, the mutual-assistance clause in the event of armed aggression on the territory of a member state, to which France is bound by virtue of the EU Treaty 13, does not seem to have significant value.

French values and French interests

The question of interests and values also deserves attention. Without going back as far as the Suez expedition of 1956, since the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy pillar by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, France’s foreign policy – particularly when it has involved military intervention – has not always been exemplary in terms of values, nor visionary in terms of the defence of its interests. One thinks of Mitterrand’s approach to the Yugoslav question 14 in the name of the Franco-Serbian alliance of the First World War, or of Operation Turquoise against the backdrop of the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, conducted on the grounds of blocking Anglo-Saxon designs on French-speaking Africa. Closer to home, the vision of the world underpinning the Sarkozy-Cameron adventure in Libya, including its more Franco-French dimension, also raises questions, particularly in view of its undeniable effects on the entire Sahel zone.

These three French external operations (OPEX) – in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Libya – were not chosen at random. They are three major interventions in which France’s political (and military) role was prominent, even decisive.

The end of Operation Barkhane

60 years after the independence of the former African colonies, the end of Operation Barkhane may not be the swansong of Françafrique, but it is certainly indicative of profound changes in the region and in former mainland France. It is a sign that France has lost its ability to activate (and impose) political levers in certain West African countries that might ensure a certain form of state stability. It is also a manifestation of the relative decline in the importance of West Africa for the French economy, and the subsequent weakening of the “African” lobby within the political class and bureaucracy, which includes some champions of crony capitalism. Finally, it reflects a difficulty – common to other European countries – of how to approach the new security threats politically.

For, unless one considers that the supply of uranium or petroleum products depends on the possession of an army “worthy of the name” – but then what happens to all those European states that cannot claim such a thing? – and requires a special foreign policy, the result is that French interests are fundamentally similar to those of the other EU member states. And if the interests (and values) are similar, so should the security threats be. 15

There is one area where France has a partially different approach to that of other EU member states, and that is the arms industry. This is an economic area where, for obvious reasons, the role of the state is, by definition, extremely important. It is even more so in France 16, where the state is often a shareholder in the companies concerned. While there is no doubt that German, Italian or Spanish state structures support their arms companies, including through “reasonable accommodations” in foreign policy, in the French case, state structures are totally at the service of these companies, thereby setting up a situation where foreign policy is no longer (possibly) accompanied by the sale of arms, but rather where it is the sale of arms that determines foreign policy. 17 The dangers of such an approach are obvious. The alternative to this export dependency is also obvious: the creation of a European arms market and the Europeanisation of the arms-producing industries. 18

Separating defence policy from security policy

Recognition of common threats, a shared observation that it would be impossible for the countries of the European Union to ensure their defence in the event of the withdrawal of the United States from the continent, and the need for the countries of Europe to continue to base their defence policy on their respective armies and on their membership of NATO – these constitute in our view the sine-qua-non conditions for the Union to assume its responsibilities in terms of foreign and security policy.

In order for this to happen we believe it is essential to separate, independently of the priority attributed to them by the various EU countries, the threats that fall under the defence policy from those that fall under the security policy of the Union and its member states. The regimes of Russia, China and, to a certain extent, Turkey, fall into the first category.

All other threats – transnational terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, instability in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), failed states, etc. – are common to all member states, even if they are given varying degrees of priority. These threats should be all the more relevant to the Union’s security policy given that they do not fall within the scope of either defence policy, stricto sensu, or NATO’s aims. The same applies to energy policy, which is also a security issue in many respects, as Nord Stream 2 demonstrates.

“An effective institutional structure”

On the basis of this distinction, is it possible to create “an effective institutional structure” 19? Certainly, the “constitutional problem” invoked by Jean Quatremer exists, but only in the same way it existed when competences were pooled in other regal domains such as justice (Luxembourg Court, Strasbourg Court), internal affairs (Schengen) or the single currency (euro). No more and no less.

Give a dog a bad name

“One does not imagine Germany, for example, sending its soldiers to the front as a result of a European decision.” 20There is no need to imagine it. The success of a European security policy worthy of the name is strictly linked to the European nature of its implementation instruments, including the common European army. Such an army cannot therefore be the sum of national contingents but must be the instrument of the member states “together” in the sense given to it by Luuk Van Middelaar – of all of them and none of them. It must therefore be created ex-novo and be composed of European officers and soldiers.

The false question of the European Security Council

The common refrain on this subject keeps coming back: there would be no European foreign and security policy without a European Security Council modelled on the United Nations Security Council. In the image of this UN institution, portrayed for the occasion as a paragon of efficiency and supranational democracy – whereas in reality it is only a chamber of guaranteed mutual neutralisation – in such a scenario only the “big” states of the Union would have a right of veto. This would replace the existing de-facto veto right – unanimity voting – with a formal veto right for the lucky few. It is not hard to guess the enthusiasm that this proposal, made by Nicolas Sarkozy in his time, aroused in those states that would not have a veto.

Yet in this matter it is pointless to complicate the issue. The European Security Council already exists: it is the European Council of heads of state and government. It even demonstrated, during the annexation of Crimea and Russia’s occupation of Donbass, the Union’s capacity – albeit insufficient – to respond and take action by imposing sanctions against the aggressor state.

Moreover, in an enhanced cooperation scenario involving an initial 19 member states 21 and where decisions would be taken by qualified majority 22, seven states party to the cooperation – or Germany and France jointly – could block a decision, thus constituting a solid antidote to any adventurous moves.

More circumscribed than the proposal of Pedro Sanchez, Mark Rutte and Heiko Maas to abolish the unanimity rule in foreign policy, an enhanced cooperation 23 aimed at creating a common European security policy founded on a common army 24 could be the first step in a process of building a truly common foreign policy.

The spectre of Orbán

It is doubtful that Viktor Orban would be able to block an initiative by such an important group of countries – especially if it is understood that countries like his, that would not be part of the enhanced cooperation, would nonetheless participate in the EU Security Council, only without the right to vote on issues related to the enhanced cooperation.

Separating defence policy, which would remain within the competence of the member states and NATO, from security policy, which would become a common matter and competence, does not prevent us from imagining the effects that one could have on the other. Thus, for example, the establishment in the Baltic States of bases for one of the three rapid-intervention divisions of the Union would not fail to have a significance from a defence standpoint. Similarly, the installation of a naval air base on Reunion Island would, in view of the ambitions that a hostile power might harbour with regard to the Indian Ocean’s Scattered Islands, have a more dissuasive role than the status of nature reserve that was recently given to the islands. Similarly, an air-and-sea force based in Thessaloniki might calm the ardour of President Erdogan in the Aegean better than a mutual defence clause or a strategic partnership between France and Greece.

Moreover, in the perspective of creating a (more) autonomous European defence policy in the long term, this European security policy would gain time, allowing the Union to:

– create and develop a political and military chain of command;

– create a place of trust between the member states;

– provide, on the basis of the many possible synergies between the common army and the national armies that might so wish to, a tool for upgrading national armies in crucial areas such as C4ISR;

– share the costs of designing, building and maintaining particularly expensive security and defence instruments (satellites, etc.);

– strengthen the Europeanisation of the armaments industry;

– contribute to security in the Pacific.

At a time when everything leads us to fear that Vladimir Putin will abandon neither his objective of reintegrating Ukraine and Georgia into his “Russian space” nor that of shattering the European Union, at a time when we are witnessing a totalitarian and imperialist mutation of authoritarian China accompanied by an impressive rise in its military power, any temptation to return to the old Westphalian order in Europe would be suicidal for all of its states, without exception.

While it is undeniable that General de Gaulle had a genius for “overvaluing his forces” 25, it was happening under the shelter of NATO and an American power concentrated on the sole Soviet threat. Today, as we witness the forging of an alliance between two imperialist powers, China and Russia, the time has come for the European Union and its member states to answer, “together”, President Kennedy’s question: “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man” 26


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  1. “L’impossible suppression du droit de véto pour la politique étrangère de l’UE”, Jean Quatremer, Libération, 8 June 2021.
  2. Although General de Gaulle orchestrated France’s withdrawal from NATO’s Unified Command, he was careful not to leave the organisation.
  3. Illusions of Autonomy: Why Europe Cannot Provide for Its Security If the United States Pulls back, Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, MIT Press Direct, Spring 2021.
  4. A recent study by the Rand Corporation “A Strong Ally Stretched Thin. An Overview of France’s Defense Capabilities from a Burden-sharing Perspective”, while underscoring the qualities of the French army, does not question the dependence on France’s American ally.
  5. These are strategies put in place to prevent an opponent from both entering and manoeuvring in an area.
  6. Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, op. cit.
  7. Germany, Spain, France, Italy and Poland.
  8. “The Russian army would appear to have 2685 combat tanks in service”, Laurent Lagneau, Zone Militaire, 21 September 2020.
  9. “Command, Control, Communications, Computers (C4) Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR)”; the advanced capacities of C4ISR present an advantage in terms of awareness of situation, enemy and environment, and reduced delay between detection and response.
  10. Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, op. cit.
  11. There is every reason to believe that nuclear deterrence would not be effective in the event of occupation by a hostile power of French overseas territories or parts thereof.
  12. Some 55% of France’s exports are to EU countries and about 55% of its imports are from EU countries. France’s external trade, 2020 Report.
  13. Art. 42 §7: “If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.”
  14. It was not until the election of Jacques Chirac as President of the Republic in May 1995 that the French position changed.
  15. With the possible exception of the question of France’s overseas departments and territories, which is a matter for both defence and security policy.
  16. Although less conspicuous, the situation in Italy is quite similar.
  17. France obviously does not have a monopoly on such practices. The foot-dragging shown by the Italian authorities in the case of the kidnapping and murder of Italian researcher Giulio Regeni in Egypt can hardly be considered unrelated to the important arms contracts between Italy and Egypt.
  18. The refusal of the then economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, to accept the proposal of Airbus boss Tom Enders to make the Dassault group, if not European, at least Franco-European, is emblematic of this difficulty.
  19. Hugo Meijer, Stephen G. Brooks, op. cit.
  20. Jean Quatremer, op. cit.
  21. Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain.
  22. 55% of the member states representing at least 65% of the population of the states participating in enhanced cooperation.
  23. Proposal for enhanced cooperation on the creation of a common European army.
  24. A rapid reaction force consisting of three land divisions and three air and sea groups. 100,000 soldiers, i.e. a projection capacity of about 35,000 soldiers.
  25. In “La victoire en pleurant” (Gallimard), by Daniel Cordier, where he reports on Raymond Aron’s remarks. Quoted by Jean-Dominique Merchet, L’Opinion, 27 June 2021.
  26. Inaugural address of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 20 January 1961.

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