Keep calm and carry on or keep calm and get out
Defence has gained a prominent place in the debates for the presidential elections. Although not without precedent, this topic has rarely been so central as nowadays. The reasons underpinning this phenomenon are numerous.
First, France is engaged in various highly visible military operations including the Barkhane operation in the Sahel, the Sentinelle operation on the mainland, and airstrikes in Iraq and Syria. Second, the security environment is very volatile with the threat posed by terrorism and the resurgence of Russia, putting military matters under the limelight.
Finally, the main candidates disagree on how to manage France’s alliances, be it the EU with the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) or NATO. On this point, candidates converge in the assertion that France does not get enough support from its European allies. This thinking is not new but once more significant now that Donald Trump has become the U.S. president. However, whoever wins the election has no crystal-clear plan about how to steer European defence forward.
What the candidates propose
The French elections are monitored very carefully abroad. The outcome has rarely, if ever, looked so unpredictable only days before the first round. Four candidates indeed find themselves so close in the polls that all four can realistically aim to be in the second round. Among them, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are openly questioning the relevance of belonging to the European Union and to NATO. Nervousness across Europe is therefore understandable considering France’s political, diplomatic and military weight in Europe.
François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron – not to mention Benoît Hamon, although his chances to stand in the second round are slim – would reassure French partners when it comes to Paris’s commitment to European defence. They differ on which method to favour but they agree that more efforts are necessary at the European level.
François Fillon has repeatedly emphasised the importance of strong bilateral relations with the United Kingdom – regardless of Brexit – and Germany. He also advocates “a European alliance of defence” although he has not clarified what that would entail. It would likely resemble the situation that Europe is in today with an additional push for cooperation when it comes to mutualising the costs of military operations and supporting European defence’s technological and industrial base. One certainty is that it would not give additional prerogatives to centralised institutions.
None of the candidates has a crystal-clear plan about how to steer European defence forward
Emmanuel Macron would strictly follow in François Hollande’s footsteps. He would set a European defence fund, which already exists; an operational HQ, which seems a more likely prospect nowadays; a European security council, which has already been widely debated; and the establishment of a permanent structured cooperation, the principles of which have already been initiated by Paris and Berlin. This is not surprising since Macron has garnered the support of Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s current Defence Minister, but it also reveals a lack of direction over what to do as far as European defence is concerned.
NATO: not in the centre of French attention
In the French traditional thinking on “L’Europe de la Défense”, the EU takes precedence over NATO. Very little air time has been devoted to the Atlantic Alliance. François Fillon and Emmanuel Macron find it useful but there is no central role for NATO in their defence policy. On the opposing side, Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon are long-time critics of NATO, which they consider subjugated by Washington. An exit from the Atlantic Alliance would therefore enable France to regain its full sovereignty, according to them.
On top of the French traditional stress on the EU, the context helps to grasp why the Alliance finds no traction in the defence debates. The uncertainty brought forward by President Trump’s evident indifference as far as Europe is concerned does not serve the interests of the transatlantic relationship. Donald Trump’s arrival in the Oval Office has generated two types of reactions in Europe. Some countries have been anxious to explain to the new President how essential the U.S. is to European security, while others consider disengagement by the U.S. as an opportunity to build a stronger European security architecture. France clearly belongs to this second camp – and this feeling is shared across the political spectrum.
Defence has been extensively addressed and debates have on occasions offered their lot of renewed thinking. European defence has not benefitted from the same treatment. All candidates revert to ideas which have been floating around for quite some time, whether they imply more of the same or a rush toward the exit. For the sake of European defence, the mainstream politicians among the candidates offer a more conventional route, which would not disrupt on-going efforts, but they would not really inject fresh thinking either.
Vivien Pertusot is an Associate Researcher at the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri). He tweets at @VPertusot.