What Should Macron Do Now?

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After setting high expectations when he won the French presidency in 2017, Emmanuel Macron will need to devise a more realistic and down-to-earth agenda for his second term. Although his options for influencing international affairs have not been exhausted, they are more limited than they were five years ago.

PARIS – Within Europe, French President Emmanuel Macron’s victory over the far-right leader Marine Le Pen has been broadly welcomed. After all, although Le Pen abandoned her old idea of ditching the euro, she still views the European Union as a threat to French sovereignty – a force that prevents the government from protecting the French people from the perils of globalization.

Among other things, Le Pen wanted to reconsider the Franco-German alliance (the bedrock of the European project since its beginning), leave NATO’s integrated military command, and seek reconciliation with Russia, despite its invasion of Ukraine. Her admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin is ideologically motivated: He supposedly defends Christian civilization against Muslims and shares her contempt for LGBT rights. But the affinity is also psychological and financial. Le Pen and the rest of the far right long for a strongman; and in 2014, her party received a €9.4 million ($10 million) loan from a Russian bank.

But while Macron’s 2017 victory over Le Pen triggered an outpouring of enthusiasm (the cover of The Economist depicted him walking on water), his re-election elicited only a sigh of relief. Macron did not meet Europeans’ lofty expectations during his first term. Some of his difficulties, such as the “yellow vests” (gilets jaunes) protests and the perception that he is a “president of the rich,” were of his own making. Others, such as Donald Trump’s presidency in the United States, Brexit, and then COVID-19, confronted him with tests for which he was not always prepared.

With Europe confronting a savage war on its border, the new strategic landscape does not seem to favor Macron’s 2017 agenda. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of international law, it precludes any French-Russian partnership in the coming years – at least while Putin is in charge.

This is a big change. Ever since Charles de Gaulle and the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958, engaging with the Kremlin has been a unique element of French security policy. Owing to its own nuclear deterrent, France was always less fearful of Moscow, and less dependent on the US nuclear umbrella, than other European countries. Allied but not always aligned with the US, successive French presidents viewed engagement with the Soviet Union, and then Russia, as a way to preserve France’s room for maneuver.

When Macron came to power in 2017, his goal was to push for European “strategic autonomy” – to make Europe less dependent on the US. This was necessary, he explained in 2019, because NATO was becoming “brain dead.”

But, thanks to Putin, NATO is now stronger and more united than it has been in decades. Every European country recognizes that, where security is concerned, NATO is the only game in town, and the US remains the only force capable of deterring wider Russian aggression. Though America’s strategic credibility was called into question by its shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, it has now been restored. By making clear that the US will not deploy troops to protect a non-NATO country, US President Joe Biden has strengthened the incentive for countries like Finland and Sweden to abandon their neutrality and join the alliance.

Under these new circumstances, Macron’s previous plea for greater autonomy vis-à-vis the US suddenly seems rather foolish to many European leaders. For now, it is the French project of European strategic autonomy that has become brain dead. Restoring normal relations with the Kremlin would take years. If Macron persists in pressing for autonomy, Europe will remain divided.

Beyond Europe, France’s efforts to help governments in Africa’s Sahel contain an Islamist rebellion are also running into trouble. The fighting has already shattered the link between France and Mali, and victory against regional extremist groups is nowhere in sight. The situation is similarly gloomy across Africa more broadly. Not only is France no longer Africa’s cop; its prestige on the continent is quickly deteriorating. The growing popularity of racist far-right figures in France is one reason for this; but another is that France has been less willing to maintain ties with authoritarian French-speaking regimes.

The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is also problematic. Lebanon is mired in political and financial crises that Macron is powerless to resolve. Algeria’s internal conflicts are hurting its relationship with France, despite Macron’s best efforts to reflect honestly on the legacy of colonialism and the brutal war of independence. And, after long serving as an active participant in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, France, like the rest of the international community, has largely given up that cause.

Where might Macron’s characteristic dynamism make an effective contribution? The first area that comes to mind is the fight against climate change. Having hosted the successful 2015 summit that produced the Paris climate agreement, France has a strong claim to global leadership on this issue. Moreover, forward-looking green policies have become increasingly popular around the world, specifically among young people, whose support Macron needs to recapture.

Macron also will likely be a strong proponent of multilateralism, which has suffered in this age of populist nationalism. The crisis of multilateralism is arguably at the heart of Europe and the world’s most pressing strategic problems today. Here, too, France has a legitimate claim to leadership, given that Macron placed multilateralism at the heart of his campaign. France is powerful enough to influence global affairs, but not to act unilaterally. With his high global profile, Macron could work with Japan, Germany, India, and others to forge a united front in defense of the multilateral system.

Lastly, Macron’s France – working closely with Germany and the EU more broadly – can help to ensure that the confrontation between the West and Russia over Ukraine does not escalate into a more dangerous global confrontation between authoritarian and democratic countries. That is the last thing France or Europe needs.