France and the Ukraine War
―The Logic Behind Macron's Security Policy―

Ken Endo

1. Introduction

The Ukraine war, which began at the end of February 2022, shook many countries including France. It has become the first massive war waged on the European continent after an interval of many years; its implications are far-reaching and broad-ranging, from the military to the economy to society. It naturally became a major campaign issue in the French presidential election in April of the same year, in which the reelection of President Emmanuel Macron was at stake.

This article focuses on the political leadership of President Macron and examines what has or has not changed in France's security policy as a result of the Ukraine war. To succinctly provide background, France's position toward Russia appears ambiguous compared to that of the United Kingdom or the United States—not to mention the invaded Ukraine—taking a relatively distinct hardline stance toward Russia. France's position is at times hardline like those countries but at other times seemingly pro-Russian with the result that its position can be unintelligible. Specifically, Macron held more than 20 rounds of French-Russian summits, including some over the phone, before and after the outbreak of the Ukraine war, and attempted to "mediate" between Russia and Ukraine. He took continued care not to drive Russia into a corner and was, as a result, suspected to be excessively "conciliatory." On the other hand, France, which held the presidency of the EU Council for the first half of 2022, worked to organize sanctions against Russia and support for Ukraine, confronting Russia, as one of the leading countries in the international community.

In this paper, we want to consider why France's security policy is intelligible and what the underlying logic is. In doing so, we will adopt a historical approach and occasionally delve into the social context. In what follows, we will first examine the historical aspects of France's unique policy line, extract the logic of its relations with Russia, look back at the relationship between Macron and Putin, and then summarize French foreign and security policy toward the ongoing war in Ukraine.

2. The Ostinato Bass of French Foreign and Security Policy: Strategic Autonomy, Great Powerism, and Europeanism

"A country's ally is another country." This is said to be the words of General de Gaulle, the symbol of WWII French resistance, the founder of what later became the Fifth Republic, and the first French president. His distrust of allies stemmed from his wartime, historical experiences.

The defeat of France by Germany, known as the "shock of 1940," accompanied by the French surrender and armistice, was viewed as a tragedy of national destruction and division for France. But the attack on Mers-el-Kébir that followed left a deep scar in the French leader's mind. 1 It was a pathetic incident in early July 1940, in which 1,295 French servicemen perished from an attack from the naval forces of the United Kingdom, which had been a French ally until shortly before WWII. Although, now that France was brought under the occupation of Nazi Germany and became its ally, French armaments were military assets that could be used to attack the Allies, France sensed some "betrayal" by Britain, which, under the cool-headed Churchill administration, attacked the French military facilities and soldiers. As the French nation was in due course split into the Nazi-occupied north, the pro-German Vichy government in the south, and the governments-in-exile in London and Algiers, US President F. D. Roosevelt was sending a relentless gaze of hatred toward General de Gaulle, who moved from London to Algiers and became the de facto head of the unified government-in-exile. Understandably, these experiences of the French people contributed to their deep-seated distrust of the Anglo-Saxon allies.

With this history of humiliation in mind, postwar France has been obsessed with securing the great power status it believes to historically deserve through maintaining its seat on the UN Security Council, its nuclear arsenal, and its colonies (or their networks). With these policy resources, it has sought to become a world-class great power. A similar thing may be said about France's position on European integration. The French-led rally of European countries in support of integration is nothing more than the creation of a platform to secure influence that any single country could not exert. French-style Europeanism thus shares a similar trajectory with Great Powerism.

This French way of thinking may often be represented in the concept of strategic autonomy. 2 The term, which first appeared in the 1994 French White Paper on National Defense, has long constituted the mainstream foreign and security policy line in post-war France. A popular lexicon defines it as "the capability to act in an autonomous manner, using peculiar resources in key strategic areas, or in cooperation with partner countries when necessary or desirable."

The most important of those "peculiar resources" in this context is nuclear weapons. France conducted its first nuclear test in 1960, becoming a nuclear weapon state, and since then, its thinking about nuclear weapons has evolved along the following three lines. The first is the capability of unleashing a nuclear counterattack when attacked, thereby constraining a potential adversary's willingness to attack. The second is to extend this capability to a European-wide scale. By making an adversary believe that France might counterattack with nuclear weapons (the only ones on the European continent except for Russia) when the adversary attacks its neighbors (with nuclear weapons), France aims to secure its leadership in Europe and to restrain the potential adversary's will to attack the country. However, the European-wide dimension is strategically ambiguous—to France and to an adversary alike. Likewise, the definitions of "Europe," "neighboring countries," "attack," and "counterattack" all lack clarity.

The most controversial is the third role of France's nuclear arsenal, which serves as an instrument for controlling an ally—the United States; in other words, France's nuclear armaments aim to complement mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and the Soviet Union (Russia). France never trusts the concept of "extended deterrence." It doubts whether any nuclear state could continue to demonstrate its readiness to use nuclear weapons for the sake of other countries when the nuclear state itself is likely to be subjected to a nuclear attack in exchange for its efforts to protect other countries. Consequently, concerning the role of its nuclear forces in safeguarding its neighbors, France does not go beyond mentioning a European-wide dimension; it avoids articulating that it will provide extended deterrence to any particular country. Meanwhile, the United States pledges to extend its nuclear umbrella to its allies. Through maintaining its nuclear capabilities, France attempts to have its will respected by the leading nuclear power—the United States. What France ultimately does with its nuclear weapons is a matter of French sovereignty. This fact makes even its allies feel uneasy and, as a result, endows France with leverage and bargaining power. In other words, France wants the United States to guarantee a counterattack against an aggressor about to overwhelm France with a nuclear attack. This is the logic of French nuclear armaments.

In this way, strategic autonomy, Great Powerism, and Europeanism are the main motif that runs through French foreign and security policy.

3. France and Russia: Russia as a European State

It is beyond the scope of this paper to systematically discuss the relationship between France and Russia, but this section will give an overview to the extent necessary for discussion.

First of all, it should be noted that in the eyes of France, Russia is a transcontinental European country that has territory in both Europe and Asia. It was Russian soldiers as occupiers that strutted through the streets of Paris after the Napoleonic Wars. Russia under Peter the Great had a military power unrivaled by any other European country; its contiguous geography helped to make it an entity demanding others' respect.

Of course, the gaze focused on it is also mixed with a sense of otherness. As Kissinger describes it, "[E]verything about the country—its size, ambitions, absolutism, and insecurities—contradicted the traditional European notion of an international order based on restraint and equilibrium." Russia was the object of "awe and apprehension." 3 Thus, when Duc de Sully worked out the "Grand Design" in the 17th century, Russia, alongside Turkey, was the object of wariness and was excluded from the vision. 4

However, it is also a historical truth that Russia constituted an element in France's many international political initiatives. Saint-Pierre's "Theory of Perpetual Peace" in the 18th century is a typical example. 5 In the 20th century, President de Gaulle's vision of a pan-European order, "Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals," was an attempt to promote stability in the geographical space containing Russia and the East European bloc for France's strategic autonomy. His visit to Moscow during the Cold War was a message to the United States about his same vision. With the end of the Cold War, President Mitterrand's concept of a European Union of States also contained the Soviet Union/Russia.

It is also true that Russians traditionally looked to France. The court language in the Romanov dynasty had long been French. It was Sergey Witte, known for his mastery of French, who represented Russia at the Portsmouth Peace Conference after the Russo-Japanese War. During the Russian Revolution and subsequent disturbances many members of the Russian nobility fled to Paris. A typical example of the two-way relationship between France and Russia may be the project of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Many French people participated in its construction; necessary funds were raised primarily in France. As is well known, the Franco-Russian alliance concluded at the end of the 19th century, with both sides aware of a rising Germany, opened the way for subsequent bilateral cooperation.

In the 21st century, France maintains a close relationship with Russia in its core policies. It is well known that France, which has no fossil fuel resources, has sought energy sources in nuclear power generation; Russia is a principal recipient of nuclear fuel waste from France. In other words, Russia has become an indispensable partner in France's energy policy, on which the survival of the French nation depends. There is no sign that this bilateral relationship has been canceled in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. French industry, reluctant about the post-invasion economic sanctions, was more attached to Russia than that of other developed countries.

The pro-Russian inclination of French politics is probably related to France's reservations toward Germany and the United States. But this inclination is more related to the country's domestic political base. Looking at the major candidates in the last two presidential elections, all of them, from the extreme left to the extreme right—Marine Le Pen, François Fillon, Jean-Luc Mélanchon, and Éric Zemmour—did not hide their pro-Russian feelings. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, they distanced themselves from Putin's brutality to varying degrees, but Fillon took several months to give up his executive position at Gazprom; Mélanchon appears even after the Russian invasion to prioritize his sense of vigilance against Germany undergoing significant changes in its military policy; Zemmour presented the historical view that France's alliance with Russia was more than once frustrated by the Anglo-Saxons. As for Le Pen, it was revealed that she received financing from Vladimir Putin during the 2017 election. Macron, who contested with Le Pen once again in the runoff during the 2022 election, mocked her bitterly, "You talk to your banker when you talk to the Russian leader"—one of the highlights of their public debate. 6 In his youth, Macron voted for leftist Gaullist Jean-Pierre Chevènement in the 2002 presidential election, a candidate who was so pro-Russian that he received a medal from Putin. Although Macron did not vote for Chevènement because of the latter's pro-Russian stance, his tolerance for the latter's Russophilia is evident.

4. Macron and Putin

After becoming French president, Macron sought to reset relations with Russia, which had deteriorated following Russia's annexation of Crimea and intervention in the Donbas. For example, he surprised many by inviting Putin to the Palace of Versailles in May 2017, shortly after his election, given that Russia had disseminated massive disinformation about Macron's homosexual tendencies and offshore bank accounts. His campaign office had been the target of Russian cyber attacks. In addition, Macron invited Putin and Trump to attend the 2018 commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. In the summer of 2019, Macron invited Putin to the French presidential retreat at the Fort de Brégançon in southern France and told him, "Russia is a European nation embracing European values." 7

Behind Macron's empathy for Russia, there seems to be his firm conviction that as Europe and France share the same continent with Russia, without its stability, their security would not be guaranteed nor could their strategic autonomy be maintained. After the 2019 G7 Biarritz summit that he chaired, Macron told French ambassadors, "Pushing Russia from Europe is a profound strategic error... The European continent will never be stable, will never be secure if we don't pacify and clarify our relations with Russia." On his return from a visit to Syria in December 2022, when the Ukraine war was at a standstill, he mentioned the possibility that the United States would lose interest in Europe, stating to the effect that without a gradual confidence-building with Russia, no defense/security project by European citizens would be realized. 8

President Macron's international agendas 9 center primarily on strengthening France's strategic autonomy and global influence under "European sovereignty" that will come after the integration of the EU with Germany and France at its nucleus. The Atlantic alliance naturally comes next, but independence from the United States is also an agenda to pursue in parallel. In Macron's vision, Russia has always been an indispensable piece. That is the reason for his search for improved relations with Russia. Incidentally, the priority is given in the order of the Franco-German relationship, Europe (EU), and the Atlantic community; these may be followed by France's former African and Middle Eastern colonies and their networks, and then by the Indo-Pacific.

Meanwhile, unique harmonies and tensions are found embedded between France's strategic autonomy, European integration, and Atlanticism or NATO. A naïve interpretation that France aims at achieving its autonomy from the United States by using the framework of the EU may be a fundamental mistake because France is dependent on the power of the United States and the NATO framework, especially in restraining Germany (plus Russia); it is only by using this framework that France could pursue autonomy. A British international political scientist William Wallace cynically and rhetorically stated, "France's independence depends upon its interdependence with the United States." 10 On the other hand, France's attempt to use the EU as a platform for its strategic autonomy gives rise to tension: not all continental European countries have nuclear weapons nor can they maintain and secure their independence on their own like France, and many of them, including the three Baltic states and Poland, are dependent on the United States and NATO in this regard. Therefore, if France forcibly demanded the integration of the EU in the area of military and security, these countries would leave the EU and join the United States, or, in other words, such a move would contribute to the division of the EU instead of its integration.

5. Macron and the Russia-Ukraine War

On the eve of the Ukraine war, Macron, sometimes alone and sometimes with German Chancellor Scholz, worked hard to dissuade Putin from attacking Ukraine. 11 This reminds us of former German Chancellor Merkel's shuttle diplomacy efforts toward the Minsk Agreements I and II (2014-15).

Reportedly, some US government officials became "convinced" of the Russian invasion as early as October 11, 2021. 12 It seems that from that time to the end of the year, the United States launched a fairly in-depth disclosure of information to Ukraine and its allies. In addition to his phone talks with Putin, Macron, accompanied by the outgoing Chancellor Merkel, met with Putin on October 10. He also held a bilateral meeting with Putin on November 16 as the Russian military buildup proceeded. In December, Macron attempted similar meetings with Putin on the 14th and 21st. The December 21 meeting, in particular, was held under an already sufficiently tense situation after Russia had delivered its demands to the West and NATO the week before. At the end of the year, however, Macron made it clear that he would not give up compromising with Russia.

In January 2022, France took over the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, and in his diplomacy, Macron came to use both his French and EU presidential status. Following a telephone conversation with Putin on January 28, Macron held a five-hour face-to-face summit with the Russian leader in Moscow on February 8; and immediately after that, he flew to Kyiv to attend a Franco-Ukraine summit. Macron, who had worked hard as a "mediator," explained that "he has achieved his objective" and that he and the leaders of the countries concerned discussed "concrete security assurance measures for all the parties involved." According to AFP, on February 8, Macron said, "The objective of stopping bargaining and of preventing the intensification of warfare has been achieved." According to the French presidential office, the French and Russian leaders "agreed not to take any new military action near the Ukrainian border." 13 However, this last point was denied shortly by the Russian presidential office. A press leak suggested that France had proposed the "Finlandization" of Ukraine, which invited a barrage of criticism. Presumably, Macron sought to maintain Ukraine's sovereignty and independence while dismissing the invaded country's early accession to NATO and tacitly acknowledging Russia the right to have a certain say.

US President Biden issued an extraordinary date-specific warning that Russia would launch an invasion on February 16. The Japanese government may also have obtained some information and awaited the news of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. If so, it is hard to believe France was ignorant of the looming crisis. Aware of the criticism he would face, Macron attempted last-minute persuasion in telephone talks with Putin, once on February 12 and twice on February 20. Macron's attempts failed when Russia recognized the independence of two eastern Ukrainian provinces on February 22, which obliged the EU countries, including France, to impose sanctions against Russia. But just before that day, Macron held a summit meeting with Putin over the phone.

After the Russian invasion began on February 24, many accusations were directed to Russia, resulting in additional sanctions against it. Four days later, on February 28, Macron had a telephone talk with Putin and demanded a halt to attacks on Ukrainian civilians, the protection of Ukrainian civilian infrastructure, and the security of roads south of the capital Kyiv. But these demands failed to receive any attention at all. On March 3, Macron held another telephone summit with Putin. However, the Russian leader, reacting to Macron's statement the day before designating Russia as the aggressor, declared that Russian attacks would continue until the completion of the demilitarization of Ukraine. Without regard for appearances, Macron was worried that the worst thing would happen. Still refusing to give up, he telephoned Putin again on March 6. Furthermore, on March 29, he repeated the proposal he had made just before the date of creating a humanitarian corridor in Mariupol, but Putin rejected it. Their talks went nowhere.

Macron, who won reelection as president of France in late April, was quick to resume diplomatic negotiations with Russia. On May 3, he held a telephone summit with Putin, his 20th since the previous December. In parallel, early that month, he stated, "We must never give in to the temptation either of humiliation or of a spirit of revenge." After another phone call to Putin on May 28, Macron made a well-known statement to the Parisian and other French regional newspapers on June 4: "Russia must not be humiliated. When the fighting stopped, it would be necessary to build an exit route by diplomatic means." "I am convinced that France has a role as a mediating power." "It is one thing to become isolated, but it is difficult to get out of it." "I told Putin that he had made a historic and fundamental mistake for his people, for himself and for history."

A strong reaction came from Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba, who criticized Macron by name, saying that Russia deserves the humiliation it brought on itself. President Zelensky said he could not understand Macron's calls to avoid humiliating Russia. Presumably, Macron spoke from a long-term perspective of how to bring Russia, which launched brutal aggression against Ukraine, back into order as a European state after the war. Therefore, it is not a contradiction, at least for him, that France increased support for Ukraine from that time. On June 9, in a telephone conversation with Zelensky, Macron pledged to provide heavy weapons to Ukraine. A week later, on June 16, he visited Kyiv, with the leaders of Germany and Italy, for a summit meeting. The French president also attended the Madrid NATO summit at the end of June. A strategic document unanimously adopted then defined Russia as a "threat." Afterward, Macron held sporadic telephone summits with the Russian president on, among other dates, August 19. Yet, there have been no talks since September 11, when the two leaders reportedly discussed nuclear threats and Russia's attacks on nuclear power plants.

We have so far reviewed President Macron's mediating diplomacy toward Russia. Mediation, however, is not all that he did. We should not forget that France strongly condemned the Russian aggression, led sanctions against Russia as the EU presidency, and provided support for Ukraine, including military assistance. As for French support for Ukraine, its total amount, including aid on a commitment basis offered via the EU budgetary system, is the third largest after the United States and Germany and slightly higher than that of the United Kingdom. Looking at its military aid alone, its total amount ranks ninth, below even Nordic countries. Yet, the weapons France has so far supplied include anti-aircraft guns, howitzers, and anti-ship missiles; France is the first country to provide light tanks. France has also deployed 3,000 French soldiers to Romania and trained 2,000 Ukrainian soldiers since shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. French arms exports in 2014-2020 exceeded €1.6 billion, one of the largest in scale. In December 2010, France presided over an international conference in Paris in support of Ukraine and pledged its continued aid.

6. Conclusion

France's engagement in the Ukraine war, which Macron publicized on December 21, 2022, may be recapitulated as follows: (1) Ukraine must decide ceasefire/truce terms; (2) Security of Ukraine and Russia: Priority should be accorded in the order of Ukraine's victory, territorial integrity, and long-term security, and then security guarantees for Russia; and (3) above all, a restoration of the pre-invasion status quo. At first glance, the French perception of the Ukraine war is not so different from that of the major Western countries. But it differs in Macron's way of adding security guarantees for Russia after those for Ukraine. His design is, as we have already detailed, to stabilize relations with Russia, a transcontinental European nation, without which France and Europe would be unable to ensure their security and strategic autonomy. Russia must be "defeated," but its "destruction" is not wanted. 14

France has been consistent on this last point since the beginning of the recent war. However, France does not overlook Russia's ongoing brutal assault but, with its other allies, has positioned Russia as a "threat." As a result, Macron's initial diplomatic efforts were wasted. After the Russian invasion began, he stepped up sanctions against Russia and endorsed Ukrainian interests without abandoning the long-term goal of incorporating Russia. Here we find the continuity and discontinuity of his diplomacy.

(Professor, The University of Tokyo)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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