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Transatlantic Take

Deepen Defense Cooperation with Paris

November 17, 2016

While the period of the U.S. elections has just come to an end, France is entering its own presidential elections campaign. Next spring the French people will elect a president for a country officially “at war” since 2015, and which has experienced a serious political crisis for almost a decade. The level of trust for political parties and institutions is at an all-time low, and the approval rate of the current president François Hollande has been below 20 percent for more than two 2 years, and reached a historical low of 4 percent in October. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right party Front National, is expected to win the first round of the presidential elections and get, for the second time in its history, a parliamentary group in 2017. The country has also been affected by a series of terrorist attacks in recent years, which have cost 238 lives since January 2015. The socio-political implications of these events are yet to be seen plainly, but the risk of further fragmentation of the French society should not be underestimated. Terrorism has only reinforced France’s engagement on foreign and security matters, and the French military is dangerously overstretched with operations in Africa and the Middle East, as well as on the French territory itself. In parallel, the economic situation has shown some signs of progress over the last two years, but remains a matter of concern for the population and policymakers alike. The unemployment rate is 9.9 percent and economic growth should reach 1.3 percent in 2016, below the expected growth of the European Union.

In this context, cooperation on defense and security matters is the absolute priority for the French government, and expectations are high that the current level of coordination with the United States will be maintained, and even deepened with the next U.S. administration. The 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks and the direct involvement of French troops in military operations in Africa and the Middle East have put all other political matters on the backburner, and France will be particularly eager to find a willing and able partner in Washington, DC. Continuity is therefore the key word. The current level of cooperation has been built on shared interests as well as strong personal relationships. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter declared that French Minister of Defense Le Drian was “the minister he speaks with the most in the world,” and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is a known Francophile. Donald Trump will have to find a way to maintain this unique trust despite the staff changes in both countries. This can be fostered by deepening intelligence sharing and cooperation on counterterrorism issues, which will remain at the top of the French priority list in the coming months.

The question of the engagement with Russia may be more complicated for the French–U.S. relationship. From the French perspective, the United States has often failed to involve its European partners when dealing with Moscow to find a solution to the Syrian crisis. Better coordination among transatlantic partners will be expected from the next U.S. administration, especially given the direct implications for European security and stability. For Paris, it is paramount to distinguish the Ukraine crisis from the Syrian one, and finding the right balance may not be easy. Besides, a possible change in government after the French elections in the spring 2017 may radically transform France’s priorities, as several right-wing candidates have consistently advocated for a strategic rapprochement with Putin.

Finally, France will also welcome restraint from the next U.S. administration, regarding strategic issues that the French government considers essentially European. Showing more engagement in European security and transatlantic defense cooperation after the Obama years is necessary, but Washington would be well-advised not to try to influence sensitive political issues such as the Brexit negotiations and the refugee crisis. Similarly, the Trump administration should show its support for the Franco-German initiative on European defense as a way to strengthen European cooperation and increase European defense responsibilities rather than a competitor to NATO and transatlantic cohesion.

Photo credit: Blandine Le Cain