UPDATED: After the Terror Attacks of 2015: A French Activist Foreign Policy Here to Stay?

February 04, 2016
Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer
Martin Michelot
Martin Quencez
3 min read


One year after the Paris attacks, France continues to face a concerning military overstretch due to its activism abroad and the ongoing military operation at home. The country has faced a series of terrorist attacks costing 86 lives lost in 2016 and has led the government to prolong the state of emergency. Next spring, the French people will elect a president for a country officially “at war” since 2015. After the elections, France’s foreign policy is likely to remain framed by its willingness to play a role on the international stage and the incentive to use foreign activism in order to compensate for the lack of political leadership at the domestic level. Growing material constraints, however, calls in to question the sustainability of this strategy and limits the country’s ability to react to new shocks.   

  • The November 13th terrorist attacks are not so much a turning point for French foreign policy but a crystallization of France’s tradition of international activism, commitment to fight terrorism at home and globally, and strategic focus on the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.
  • France’s post-November 13th focus on the fight against terrorism will increase its reliance on U.S. military leadership and capabilities in the MENA region, and on NATO and European partners' resolve to deter Russia in the East. French expectations of its Allies in supporting this agenda may create further tensions at the heart of NATO as we approach the Warsaw summit.
  • The challenges faced by French "leadership from the front" mirrors those faced by U.S. "leadership from behind." European countries are neither willing to follow France’s military initiatives, nor able to share the leadership on security issues. In a context of capability and budget constraints, France is facing a military overstretch at home and abroad.
  • France has become the United States’ most reliable European partner for power projection operations, but also competes directly with the United States by deploying a hyper-pragmatic economic diplomacy with the Gulf States, Egypt, and Iran.
  • Since the 2015 terrorist attacks, the French domestic context has changed, blurring the lines between traditional political postures and between domestic and foreign policy. This has made President François Hollande fully accountable for his foreign policy decisions, and allowed opposition leaders to criticize and question the efficiency of his military engagements and his exercise of diplomacy.

This paper analyzes the shaping and the implementation of France’s recent diplomatic and military actions in light of shifts in the strategic environment and blurring lines between domestic and foreign policies. First, it highlights the main geopolitical developments influencing France’s foreign policy: the redefinition of U.S. global leadership, the numerous security challenges in Europe and the European neighborhoods, and the emergence of new state and non-state security actors at the global level. The paper also focuses on the interests behind current French engagement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, the French ability to exercise credible leadership in foreign and security affairs in Europe and beyond — as well as influence regional balance of power — and the implications for France’s “special” role in the transatlantic security partnership. Indeed, French-U.S. military cooperation has recently reached a new high, with France and the United States working closely together in Libya, Mali, the Sahel, and now in Iraq and Syria. Paris has become Washington’s most reliable European partner for power projection operations; the deepening of the French-U.S. strategic partnership parallels the relative decline of the U.K. strategic influence. Finally, the paper shows how Hollande’s activism on the international scene and the unique centrality of security policy are shaping the changing French political context. It highlights the current softening of the traditional political divides on strategic issues, as well as of the long-established demarcation between foreign and domestic policies.

Photo Credit: Mstyslav Chernov