France and the United States go back a long way. It was French support of America’s Revolutionary War that made all the difference—without French ammunition, troops and naval support, America could not have beaten the British. Ironically, our American Revolution inspired the French Revolution of 1789—which remains to this day the seminal event in the French psyche, evolving into France’s civilizing mission—la mission civilistratice—to spread human rights and democracy. Former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin wrote, “At the heart of our national identity, there is a permanent search for values that might be shared by others.” The French believe that they, like the United States, hold a special place in the world. The relationship between France and the US has had its ups and downs—a few examples:
The very bumpy relationship of Charles De Gaulle, leader of the Free French, with the major Allies during the Second World War. Roosevelt wrote to Churchill that he was “fed up with De Gaulle.” De Gaulle and the Free French were largely excluded from the postwar planning by Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, and ignored by the US State Department. De Gaulle was not invited to summit meetings at Tehran, Yalta, or Potsdam.
The 1956 Suez Crisis in which President Dwight Eisenhower pulled the plug on the operation, fearing a backlash from the Arab world.
In 1959, De Gaulle—then president—decided that France would have its own force de frappe, its own nuclear force—US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1962 called France’s nuclear ambitions “dangerous … and lacking in credibility.”
In 1966, De Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s integrated command and ordered the US to withdraw its soldiers from French soil. President Lyndon Johnson had Secretary of State Dean Rusk ask De Gaulle if that included the American soldiers buried in French war cemeteries—no answer was forthcoming from France. (It was not until 2009 that French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would return to NATO’s military command).
French President Emmanuel Macron advocated a “real European army” to protect against Russia, saying, “[f]aced with Russia, which is near our borders and has shown it could be threatening—I want to build a real security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect, a European country—but we must have a Europe that can defend itself on its own without relying only on the United States.” President Donald Trump reacted harshly in a tweet as follows: “Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the US subsidizes greatly!” Macron, by the way, said that NATO was “experiencing brain death”
In a move that humiliated France, the United States, in 2021, ditched a deal with France by which diesel subs would be provided to Australia and entered AUKUS—a deal with the United Kingdom to provide nuclear subs to Australia.
Macron as De Gaulle
President Macron has been following in the footsteps of his hero Charles De Gaulle, applying De Gaulle’s ideas on strategy and defense to the contemporary world situation, arguing that France and the other European states must not become “America’s followers.” As the rivalry between China and the US escalates, Macron fears that France will become a vassal of the US. He wants to realize the re-establishment of a European Europe under French leadership, with France as a third force between the superpowers.
Macron has said that France’s “role everywhere is to be a mediating power… A diplomatic, military, cultural, educational, national, and European power, and always to be a mediator … meaning that France never stops making itself heard … It is not a compromising power, not a middling power, but a mediating power; one which seeks to build this very international order which alone will enable us to make globalization a little more human and humanist.”
De Gaulle “simply steered a course” between “two evils—Soviet or American domination. Whenever the choice [was] stark and unavoidable,” he supported the United States. But when “events” did “not press a clear choice upon him, his course [was] simply to maneuver between a potential enemy and a very irksome friend.” (De Gaulle – The Implacable Ally, Roy Macridis, Ed.) Sound familiar? Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Macron, like De Gaulle, is trying to steer France’s path between the superpowers. This has not been an easy task.
Ukraine War and Taiwan
Regarding the war in Ukraine, it is the United States that has been at the forefront of organizing humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine together with America’s allies, not France. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has criticized France (and Germany) for a lack of commitment to Ukraine. Ukraine is truly the bright line for the survival of Europe because if it falls to the Russians, all of Europe will be next.
In addition, a rising China and its threats against Taiwan pose a threat to the entire world. When Macron was in Beijing, accompanied by Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, Macron and von der Leyen were unable to punch above their weight against a powerful China. Von der Leyen even had the temerity to tell Xi Jinping that “stability in the Taiwan Strait is of paramount importance” and that that “[t]he threat of the use of force to change the status quo is unacceptable.” Xi was not swayed. Bottom line: Macron and von der Leyen made no significant impact on the Ukraine or Taiwan crises in discussions with Xi; nothing changed.
There are no winners here, only losers, and the biggest losers will be France and Europe. If Europe disappears, as Macron apparently fears, it will be due to France’s failure to appreciate the need to work with the United States to forge a workable alliance with Europe to deal with pressing global and regional issues.
Considering Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and the rise of China, among other causes, Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany has noted in Foreign Affairs magazine that the world is facing a Zeitenwende, “an epochal tectonic shift.”
The Path Forward for France
Because of these significant global changes, Macron’s vision for France as a mediator and world leader will likely not be realizable. Indeed, even the French seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (with a veto) has been challenged by Germany’s suggestion that France turn over its UN Security Council seat to the EU. France rejected this proposal, as expected, but this demonstrated the diminished perception of France’s influence, even by other Europeans.
France, Germany, and all of Europe must join with the United States to address the impact of the Ukraine war and the threat to Taiwan, among many other global and regional issues. Chancellor Scholz believes that “US President Joe Biden and his administration deserve praise for building and investing in strong partnerships across the globe.” Macron should come to understand this as well.
Instead of fixating on how France can be the leader of Europe, France should work cooperatively with the other European states to strengthen the trans-Atlantic alliance with the United States. This is indispensable to contain China and support Ukraine in its effort to win the war against Russia.
There is no way to completely cure the French malaise. Perhaps the French might recall (as President Johnson did) that American troops sacrificed their lives during World War II so that France and Europe could be free. The French should understand that their best approach is a strong alliance with the US and active participation in NATO and other cooperative arrangements with the US and its allies.
NATO 2030 took note of “Russia and China’s challenges to the rules-based international order.” The G-7 (United States, United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan) Hiroshima Leaders Communique (May 2023) “reaffirm[ed] the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits,” expressed concern over human rights in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong and called on China to press Russia to stop its aggression in Ukraine.
Henry Kissinger is of the view that the French approach to international relations is attributable to cultural factors, namely that the French “try to convince you of the inadequacy of your thinking.” Clearly, no one is convinced. Macron’s arguments have simply not been persuasive considering the reality of world events. The era of De Gaulle is over and the time for French hubris is at an end. Why? Because world peace and stability depend on it.
A historian noted as one of De Gaulle’s main character traits, “prescience of the future and disdain for those who think only in terms of the present.” It is high time for Macron to start thinking realistically about the challenges facing France, Europe, and the world and get on board with the trans-Atlantic alliance and good relations with the United States, recognizing America’s pre-eminent leadership position in the world with the power and capability to push back both Russia and China—working, of course, together with America’s allies.
Mark Meirowitz, Ph.D., is Professor, State University of New York (SUNY) Maritime College.