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Note: End of the affair
The root and rout of French elite Russophilia
Back in June, I described Emmanuel Macron’s keynote to the Bratislava GLOBSEC 2023 conference as the “most remarkable foreign-policy speech from a French head of state for two decades”.
Gone was the French president’s equivocation about a Ukrainian victory. Any concern about Russian “humiliation” had been replaced by a commitment to forcing a weakened Moscow to the negotiating table with the help of French-supplied SCALP long-range cruise missiles. For Macron, Ukraine was no longer an extra in Russia’s great power story but “a powerful actor” in its own right that needed containment within the EU and NATO.
I knew this was an overhaul to decades of French strategic doctrine – a fact confirmed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent lament that the Élysée’s current occupant had caved to eastern European pressure. But it wasn’t until I read Isabelle Lasserre’s new book1 on the French elite’s weird romantic attachment to Russia that I understood the historic scale of Macron’s “pivot” (may God forgive me).
Publishing just before the speech, Lasserre missed the tournant but her story of Gaullist foreign-policy thinking and of Macron’s increasingly embarrassing attempts to tame Putin make Bratislava feel inevitable. "France needs to see European countries as they are, not as it would like them to be," a French diplomat tells her. Paris can talk about “strategic autonomy” as much as it likes but most European countries – especially those in the east and the north – trust NATO, not France or the EU, to protect them. “France must abandon its illusory quest for a ‘balancing power’ facing a Russia that doesn't listen to or respect this naive and outdated position," says the diplomat.
A columnist on defence and strategic questions at Le Figaro after ten years as a war correspondent in the Balkans, Chechnya, and Afghanistan, Lasserre peppers her book with off-the-record quotes like this from serving diplomats and military officers as well as from named former officials and strategic analysts. Together with another, more sympathetic, study2 published in 2022 by independent journalist Marc Endeweld, Lasserre’s book is a fascinating tale of the rise and fall of this “illusory quest” to create a European fence-sitting superpower. This Franco-German great power would use its muscle to bind Russia to Europe, China to global institutions, and humble American “hyperpower”.
The dream began under the presidency of Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969) and especially after he withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. But it was moulded into its modern, bipartisan form by socialist president François Mitterrand (1981-1995) and by Hubert Védrine, who was his diplomatic advisor (1981-1988), spokesman (1988-1991), and chief of staff (1991-1995) before serving as foreign minister (1997-2002) under Jacques Chirac, Mitterrand’s conservative successor.
While Americoscepticism and the notion that France (and therefore the EU) should be a “balancing power” have long been core beliefs among French elites - especially after the 2003 Iraq invasion - an alternative anti-Védrinist view began to spread. "For 20 years, in diplomatic circles, we have been witnessing a latent war between partisans of ‘Gaullo-Mitterandism’, for whom France must preserve its singularity in the face of the US, and ‘neoconservatives’, concerned that France should become the best student in the Western camp," writes Endeweld.
Before taking office, Sarkozy fell under the spell of this second group and returned France to NATO’s integrated command. But that wasn’t the whole story. He and his allies may have been more inclined to lean their “balancing power” westward, support Israel and show less understanding of nuclear proliferation, but many – most notably Sarkozy and his prime minister François Fillon – still suffered from a romantic attachment to Russia’s great power illusion. Of France’s five post-Soviet heads of state, writes Lasserre, the only one with a clear-eyed view of Putin was the lowest-rated: François Hollande (2012-2017). Macron “believed he could bring Putin back to his senses, but he only understands the balance of power,” she quotes Hollande as saying. “His initiatives could work with democrats but not with dictators. We don't seduce dictators. They are the ones who are trying to seduce us”.
Moi non plus
Within weeks of taking office in 2017, Macron sought to bring Putin back in from the cold to which he had been sent after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas three years earlier. Dusting off a plan originally made for Fillon – who had been the front-runner for the presidency until scandal destroyed his candidacy – he hosted Putin at the Fort de Brégançon presidential residence and lobbied hard to dismantle sanctions and return Moscow to the Group of Eight club.
Frustrated not just by resistance from the EU’s eastern states but by internal opposition from his foreign ministry, he used a speech to France’s diplomatic corps in August 2019 to denounce his own "deep state" and a "neoconservative ideology imported into France ten years ago".
Judging by the briefings given to Lasserre, he wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t deep-state neocons who convinced the president to reverse his Russian position. It was three more years of frequent telephone calls and rarer face-to-face meetings with Putin himself. According to Lasserre, the Russian president’s claim in a September 2020 call that opposition figure Alexei Navalny poisoned himself didn’t help. Neither did Putin’s refusal to unblock diplomatic impasses in Syria, Libya, and the Donbas.
Yet, even after the full-scale invasion in February 2022 – following 21 phone calls during which Putin had repeatedly lied to Macron – the French president stuck with it, foot-dragged with military aid to Ukraine, and warned against “humiliating” Russia. The Bucha massacre and a visit to Kyiv started his intellectual journey to the Bratislava reboot but, ultimately, it was realpolitik that forced the overhaul of more than 50 years of French strategic thinking. The February 2022 invasion forced the Germans to pick a side; elevated Poland, the Baltics, and Nordics into an emergent joint alternative power; and transformed Ukraine into an unstable military giant on the EU’s eastern order. France had to adapt or die. But, as someone “close to” Macron tells Lasserre: “Unfortunately, it’s too late. The president has discredited himself so much with his European and Ukrainian partners since the start of the war that the damage is no longer repairable”.
Gaullo-Mitterrandism will take some time to sweat out of the armed forces, as recent remarks from Pierre de Villiers, the former chief of the general staff, make plain. Nevertheless, Lasserre makes a fascinating observation about differentiated Americoscepticism and Russophilia across the three services. While it is entrenched among older army officers, it is fading among younger staff – especially those with experience of the Wagner Group in Mali. It is also far less present in the navy and air force, which continued to participate in NATO exercises, joint procurement, and early-warning radar systems after 1966.
The French elite has woken up to strategic reality just in time for NATO to face the most serious threat in its history in the form of the possible next president of the US.