What Europeans Expect from the French Presidential Election
The candidates have very different views on foreign policy and France’s role in the world: while President Emmanuel Macron continues to push for a more sovereign Europe and to invest in the European Union as the best vehicle to defend French national interests at the global level, Marine Le Pen promotes a radically nationalist vision of sovereignty that includes leaving NATO Military Command and challenging EU treaties in order to regain independence. Jean-Luc Mélenchon also plans to leave NATO Military Command and eventually the alliance itself, and advocates for a policy of nonalignment and developing new partnerships in the global south.
GMF fellows across Europe reflect on the implications of the election for their country and for European cooperation, highlighting the expectations and concerns of France’s partners on the eve of this important political moment.
Germany Prepares for a Second Macron Term (and Its Challenges)
Under normal circumstances, the German media and public follow French elections almost as closely as US elections. But this year, all eyes in Germany are on Russia’s war on Ukraine.
Particularly since the beginning of the war and against the backdrop of his skyrocketing intentional votes, an incumbent victory for Emmanuel Macron is almost taken for granted in Germany, both within the policy community and the broader public. Though there were concerns about a Marine Le Pen victory in the years before, Germany is now de facto preparing for a second Macron term.
Five more years of Macron would have major implications for Germany. A big challenge for its government will be to agree among the coalition partners on how to cooperate with France. While Macron’s positions on energy questions, particularly nuclear energy, will spark discomfort with the Greens, it is likely that the Liberals (FDP) would oppose another massive borrowing plan. Regarding another central project for Macron, advancing European defense, it remains to be seen how the German Zeitenwende and the massive increase in defense spending translate into practice and, most importantly, priorities.
When Macron presented his five-year project for Europe in 2017, Germany’s government shamefully passed on this opportunity to renew the French-German engine for Europe. His initiatives were considered European hyperactivism, incompatible with Germany’s vision of EU-27 integration and its atlanticist tradition. The change from “strategic autonomy” to “strategic sovereignty”—without changing the underlying concept—was welcomed in Germany and will benefit French-German cooperation in Europe in the near future. The term can allow the two countries to focus on economic issues, energy security, and health security without getting lost in semantic debates, provided Germany’s government gives a coherent answer to the resident of the Elysée.
Italy and France Can Tackle the Economic Side of European Security Together
Emmanuel Macron’s activism around the Ukraine crisis has been hard to match. In the run-up to the conflict, the French president advocated a new European security pact and made a controversial visit to Moscow. Since the war started, Macron put France at the forefront of a three-pronged approach to bolster NATO’s defense and deterrence capabilities, supporting the Ukrainian resistance while keeping a line of communication open with President Vladimir Putin, despite Russia’s unprecedented international isolation.
Though hailed for his international credentials, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi has been unable to demonstrate the same level of leadership. Rome’s role as substantive but ultimately secondary in managing the crisis is set to redefine European security for good. With Germany’s new course on defense and the United Kingdom’s re-engagement in the European strategic theater through NATO, the space will shrink further. Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Macron have already started teaming up behind a search for a—so far elusive—diplomatic solution.
While some may conclude that the recent French-Italian honeymoon—exemplified by the signing of the bilateral Quirinal Treaty last November—was short-lived, nothing would be more detrimental for their relations to lose momentum. In fact, as Macron marches toward what looks a likely re-election in April, Rome and Paris have no dearth of common priorities to join forces on. The most obvious one is the shared goal of protecting post-pandemic recovery and growth, an objective that the war in Ukraine has made strategically more significant but also harder to achieve.
Ensuring sustained growth and reducing dependencies will be key steps toward building a more strategically autonomous Europe in the changed international context.
Soon after the French elections, Draghi and Macron should follow up on their bold views for European fiscal policy as outlined in their undernoted joint op-ed at the end 2021. In the wake of the war, the two leaders’ emphasis on the need to scale up European investment in strategic sectors should now be more linked to the need to drastically reduce European energy imports from Russia.
While European and transatlantic cooperation will continue to focus on military issues—and hopefully diplomatic developments—around Ukraine in the weeks to come, Italy and France can work together on the economic side of the new security equation. Ensuring sustained growth and reducing dependencies will be key steps toward building a more strategically autonomous Europe in the changed international context.
Spain Has High Hopes for More Macron
Spain is watching the upcoming French presidential elections with high hopes. The pro-Europe stance of the incumbent president, who is leading all polls, is reassuring for Spain, a country deeply committed to European integration.
Macron’s election—combined with the evolution of Germany’s positions on European finances and security after, respectively, the coronavirus pandemic and the attack against Ukraine—would hopefully open a window of opportunity for advancing numerous key Spanish priorities, in particular European security and defense as well as economic and fiscal integration. It would also set up a favorable scenario for the Spanish presidency of the EU, which will take place in the second half of 2023.
The way in which the campaign has unfolded is less reassuring, as it has presented a troubling image of French and European politics, with most of the better positioned challengers at best suspicious of the European Union, transatlantic relations, and NATO, and tepid on sanctions against Russia, exploiting Identitarian mindsets and using populist strategies. Even if their chances of victory are slim, the mere fact that they are probable contenders for the second round of elections is worrying.
The political systems of France and Spain are too different to make any sort of meaningful extrapolation from the French presidential election to the Spanish parliamentary election, to be held within the next two years. But some of the themes of the French campaign will also be present in Spain, such as the struggle with identity politics and, most of all, how to endure the ever-revolving economic crises.
European Unity Is Poland’s Defense Shield against Russia
The outcome of the French election will strongly influence the European response to Russia’s war in Ukraine, and Warsaw is paying close attention. This election is taking place at the turn of an era. Europe finds itself in an entirely new security environment. Poland now has over 1,160 kilometers of border that is vulnerable to Russia and is increasingly reliant on security guarantees from NATO, Western Europe, and the United States. It needs Ukraine to win this war. Poles are scrutinizing what the French presidential candidates say about all issues related to geopolitics: further sanctions on Russia, arms deliveries to Ukraine, which international organization should lead cooperation on the crisis, the issue of withdrawal from NATO’s integrated command, strengthening NATO’s eastern flank and, finally, post-war policy toward Russia.
Poland now has a 1,160-kilometer-long border with Russian-controlled territory and is increasingly reliant on security guarantees from NATO, Western Europe, and the United States. It needs Ukraine to win this war.
Until recently, France and Poland clashed on Russia’s threat perception and Poland’s rule of law. Since the invasion of Ukraine, France’s shift on Russia policy under President Emmanuel Macron has been serious—Poland would welcome his re-election. Having talked to Vladimir Putin prior to the attack, Macron is in a good position to understand the folly of the Russian president’s actions. He led a tough European response to the assault. At the same time, his insistence on continued dialogue with “the butcher” is perceived as counterproductive, self-interested, and insulting. Nevertheless, seen from the eastern flank, the other candidates’ views, such as blaming the war on NATO expansion, are even more distressing and alarming.
Poles are anxious about the results of the French election because European unity is their defense shield against Russia. When France, Germany, and Poland are on the same page, Putin’s efforts are frustrated. If Macron is re-elected and the Law and Justice party makes peace with the EU, we could be seeing a new chapter in French-Polish relations built around security and defense cooperation.
Cautious Optimism in the UK
Few people in the United Kingdom are paying close attention to France’s presidential election campaign. Like most of Europe, the UK’s attention is firmly on Ukraine and Emmanuel Macron is expected to be re-elected. But the outcome in France matters to the UK. For starters, its government is hoping a new French mandate will be the chance to revisit and strengthen French-British relations. Second, it wants to make sure NATO remains the key forum for any future discussions on European security.
London finds Paris a vital—but tricky—partner. Brexit and AUKUS have strained bilateral relations. For the UK, Macron continues to be one of the hardliners on Brexit and shares some responsibility for ongoing UK-EU tensions. France also finds the UK’s confrontational tone toward the EU counterproductive. Ministers have frequently taken to Twitter to express their discontent with the other side of the Channel.
But the war in Ukraine has focused minds. As the two leading military and only nuclear powers in Europe, France and the UK share many of the same instincts. London is hoping to capitalize on its recent cooperation on Ukraine to focus on other areas like climate change and NATO. The UK wants to make sure that any push for EU “strategic autonomy” does not come at the expense of NATO or the UK and the US role in European security. It would like NATO to play a more prominent role in coordinating transatlantic positions on China. France, on the other hand, would rather these talks take place inside the EU, or between the EU and other partners.
Repatching relations will not be easy, but the UK is cautiously optimistic that 2022 may be the start to a new strengthened dialogue between both sides.