Drivers and Directions of France's Foreign Policy

By invitation only
Teija Tiilikainen / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen Teija Tiilikainen / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen
Justin Vaïsse / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen Justin Vaïsse / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen
Daniela Schwarzer / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen Daniela Schwarzer / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen
Manuel Lafont Rapnouil / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen Manuel Lafont Rapnouil / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen
David Cadier / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen David Cadier / Photo: Mattias Lehtinen

Mon 23.5.2016 at 13:30-15:30
At the Finnish Institute of International Affairs
Kruunuvuorenkatu 4, Helsinki

France is often remembered in foreign policy debates for its opposition to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003. More than ten years later, French foreign policy seems radically different to what it was then. France is cooperating more closely than ever with the US on matters of international security, participates in the strikes of the Western coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and adopted positions on the Iranian nuclear programme more radical than those of Washington. This activism is also visible at the European level: France has activated the mutual defence clause of the EU treaty after the Paris attacks of November 2015 and has taken a central role along with Germany in the conflict resolution efforts in Ukraine. What are the roots of France’s foreign policy activism and is it here to stay? How is France positioning itself in an international environment marked by the US temptation for strategic disengagement and a European context characterised by Germany’s leadership? What are Paris’ positions on some of the current burning issues of European politics, such as the refugee crisis, BREXIT, the economic sanctions against Russia or the upcoming NATO summit?

Speakers: Justin Vaïsse, Director of Policy Planning, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Daniela Schwarzer, Director of the Europe Program and the Berlin office, the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF)

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Head of the Paris office, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

David Cadier, Visiting Senior Fellow, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs

Chair: Teija Tiilikainen, Director, the Finnish Institute of International Affairs


Teija Tiilikainen, Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, opened the seminar and noted that France’s foreign policy is something we in Finland want to know more about since it is an important EU country. Tiilikainen welcomed the panelists to discuss among other things transatlantic relations, European affairs and Europe’s future as well as France’s Russia policies.

Justin Vaïsse, Director of Policy Planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, noted that the main purpose of the Policy Planning unit is to advise the Foreign Minister on central foreign policy lines, to follow various crises, and to consider future scenarios and strategies. Vaïsse stated that nuclear issues are high on the agenda these days, and that France should update and reconsider its doctrines and thoughts on what nuclear weapons mean today. His presentation for this seminar addressed Europe and the Franco-German relations as well as transatlantic relations.

The relationship with the US has been a major dividing line in the French foreign policy debate for decades. Vaïsse described France’s relation to the US and the debate after the Cold War through a historical dividing line between atlantists and gaullists. Atlantists promote a strong link with the US in particular through NATO, whereas gaullists strive for more independence and balance, and advocate taking distance from NATO and the US. These labels changed in 2003 when France together with Germany opposed the US on the Iraq war. In the post-Cold War era these dividing lines have become blurry and it is sometimes unclear who’s a gaullist and who’s an atlantist. According to Vaïsse, these labels failed to describe the French foreign policy debate especially when it came to the start of Obama’s administration. As a new way to discuss the relations to the US, Vaïsse underlined that the idea of independence and solidarity is important in France’s foreign policy today. The goal of independence is reflected in France’s effortsto resume its responsibilities in Africa, for example in Mali in 2013 where France took actions and launched an urgent operation against terrorist groups that threatened to attack Mali’s capital.  The idea of solidarity is exemplified in the French policy regarding Africa, which is described as "neither indifference nor interference”, so rather than interfering France is supporting the fight against various terrorist groups for example in Nigeria.  

Vaïsse noted that France and the US often agree on the objectives, but they sometimes disagree on the tactics. France tends to mix and combine independence with cooperation in its foreign policy today. In his concluding remarks, Vaïsse stated that today’s debate revolves largely around Europe and Russia.  There is one side that wants to increase and strengthen ties with Russia and one side that strives for more independence.

Daniela Schwarzer, Director of the Europe Program and the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), discussed the future of Europe and gave her input on the Franco-German perspective. Schwarzer stated that even though the countries share the same strategic environment, some topics are prioritized over others. For example Russia has been very topical in Germany and this is also visible in Germany’s leading role in the joint actions towards Russia. The German public debate differs from the French one in that risks of failing states and terrorist groups taking over states are not as visible as they are in France, although these issues are acknowledged on higher foreign policy levels. These topics might be more present in the French public debate due to the recent attacks in Paris, whereas Germany does not share the same experience of a terrorist attack and because of that the public debate is shaped differently.

Regarding the European agenda, Schwarzer mentioned the migration and refugee crises, and that this current situation is only the beginning. In its migration policy, Germany pushes for a joint European approach with an internal distribution system including refugee quotas for member states. Furthermore, Schwarzer mentioned Germany’s 1.1 million migrants last year, compared with the French promise to accept only 30 000 refuges over a two-years time period. Due to this, Germany was disappointed and felt a lack of solidarity from France. It is important to acknowledge these two very different approaches to the refugee crises, especially in regard to the future migrant flows. Since France has more awareness of future risks of failing states due to its military engagement in the areas where the refugees come from, France and Germany should cooperate more in this area.

On Brexit, Schwarzer underlined that France and the UK have close defence and foreign policy cooperation and that the two countries do not actually need an EU framework for this purpose. Cooperation could continue even if Brexit happened. For Berlin, keeping Britain in the EU is a priority due to the single market and free movement of people also from Germany to the UK, especially since Britain is now the second largest economy in the EU. According to polls, the population in France is among those who worry the least if Britain leaves the EU, whereas at least economically speaking Germans feel closer to the UK. Also the fact that Germany and Angela Merkel have been more proactive in negotiating and meeting with PM David Cameron gives a signal to the public about Germany’s efforts to keep Britain in. Schwarzer also pointed out the challenge France might face prior to its presidential elections if Brexit happens, regarding the French right-wing populist party Front National and its desire to leave the EU. Germany’s situation is not as alarming since the right-wing populist party, although it has increased support, does not argue for leaving the EU.

As a final point, Schwarzer commented on the eurozone from the perspectives of the two countries. In Paris there has always been a strong will to further develop the eurozone and a will to push for a stronger political identity of the eurozone. This can be seen in the successful efforts to form the euro group and in the eurozone summit that was held in 2008. According to Schwarzer, during the eurozone crises in 2009, France acted as a corrective mechanism to the German agenda and its input was crucial during the debt crisis, as it pushed to adopt rescue mechanisms which are still in place today. The French impact on European decision-making was also visible during the Greece criss, when France argued successfully for the geostrategic argument of keeping Greece in the eurozone, which Germany only later agreed on. Schwarzer also mentioned the problematic situation where France and Germany continue to disagree on the Five Presidents report, which is a key document and outlines extensive issues that need to be solved. A combined model of compromises but also credibility when it comes to implementation are crucial elements that are required to tackle these future challenges, as well as the inclusion of southern European member states.

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, Head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), presented a French point of view, looking at French foreign policy in the Middle East and the North African region. Broadly speaking there are three zones that France has a relationship with. The first one is the Maghreb region, with which France has very close ties and bilateral relations. As the second zone Lafont Rapnouil named the Levant, in which France is a maneuvering power and has significant influence. France has taken an active role in the Middle East peace process and has repeatedly been pushing for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, utilizing its relations with both parties. The third area is the Gulf region where France has not had the most influential position but according to Lafont Rapnouil it could be seen as a renewed area of interest. These zones offer different channels that France uses for its policies, diplomacy work, bilateral relations and also initiatives to the EU. An important way for France to use its leverage is through its permanent membership in the UN Security Council. The second channel of influence is through economic ties, where for example Gulf investments in France are important. The last channel of influence is through the long tradition of military ties; France has for instance a military base in the Emirates and supports the UN mission in Lebanon.

Lafont Rapnouil mentioned foreign policy ambitions as the key driver for France’s foreign policy so that it puts France on the map as a global actor but also emphasizes security, not only nationally but also outside its borders. Furthermore, Lafont Rapnouil described France’s foreign policy through independence and solidarity. Economic ties could also be seen as a driver but not at the same level as the other factors. As a substantial driver he noted the defence industry security and the threat of international terrorism, where also intelligence cooperation has an important role.

Lafont Rapnouil stated that the unpredictable and unstable environment is seen as a challenge in the current landscape. As a reaction to these challenges, France is looking at how it can best provide general stability and prevent further security threats or crises. For example, France’s toughness was criticized during the Iran nuclear talks and was perceived as sabotaging. However, according to Lafont Rapnouil these efforts were made in order to make the deal robust, sustainable and credible. As another example he mentions France’s policy of "non-action not being an option” and the emphasis on a political solution in Syria and the continued efforts in the Middle Eastern peace process.

On Saudi Arabia, Lafont Rapnouil stated that it is hard to understand France’s support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and that there is a lack of focus on the fight against terrorism.

Tunisia also remains a fragile state and a last hope for a successful candidate from the Arab spring revolution, a country where France continues to support the civil society. In his concluding remarks, he mentioned the European dimension and questioned the EU tendency to sometimes present itself as an external actor or mediator with no direct interest, when in reality it has a lot of its own interests in the region.

According to David Cadier, Visiting Senior Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs, Russia and especially Ukraine had not been high on the French foreign policy agenda up until the crisis. However, since 2014 France has been quite active and visible in its reaction to the Ukraine crisis where the Normandy format and the close cooperation with Germany in bringing mediation to this conflict play important roles. Cadier also noted the EU’s sanctions policy towards Russia. France has had an active role in this regard, although the policy is mainly led by Berlin.

When discussing Russia in the French media, Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen is often mentioned as well as the party’s close ties with Russia, but Cadier underlined that at this point Le Pen does not influence France’s foreign policy. The second issue brought up in the media is the resolution by the French National Assembly to call for the lifting of sanctions, which is also supported by the main opposition party in France. These realities might be important to take into consideration with regard to the upcoming election in France. However, public opinion, main media outlets and foreign policy elites have been critical of Russia over the recent years and even before Ukraine. Cadier predicted that if the new president after the 2017 elections comes from the centre-right party, the Russian discourse will change, but there will most likely not be a radical change of policies in this regard. According to Cadier there is a concern in Paris about the militarization of Russia’s foreign policy and as an example he mentioned the centre that was created in Russia that is sponsored by the ministry of defence with the specific task of monitoring the development of Russia’s military tools. He took Crimea as an example of a turning point in the European debate, where the violation of the basic rules of the EU security order opened questions regarding borders in Europe and further conflicts. One of the alarming factors was also that it was a member of the UN Security Council that was breaking these shared views of international security.

Cadier stated that economization and Europeanization can be seen as trends in France’s foreign policy towards Russia. Over a longer period of time the economic component has been taking over the political component in France’s policies towards Russia. This was not the case before, when France looked at European security as something that should be built with Russia rather than against Russia. Although trade has not been that significant between Russia and France, what matters economically to France is Russia as a market and big French investments in Russia. Where the economic component has been taking over, the political component was losing some of its substance, due to, among other things, differing interpretations of the Arab spring. Especially regarding the Ukraine crisis there has been an Europeanization pattern visible in France’s foreign policy. This means that France has been increasingly taking into consideration the EU context and the relationship with Germany in its Russia policy. Because of the fact that France has taken a more active role in the EU and NATO and on the other hand that the US is being less engaged, France sees a need to consolidate its position within these organizations. According to Cadier, the cancelling of the Mistral affair that included political, economic and financial costs, characterized this Europeanization, where a signal of France’s foreign policies towards Russia was sent to NATO allies and EU partners. Finally, Cadier underlined that the Minsk agreement’s faults are acknowledged, but is the only document signed by both parts and the one thing left to work around. For Paris and Berlin, the hope of progress lies in the election in eastern Ukraine. France’s stance is to not lift the sanctions, unless there is implementation to be seen, since it would undermine the use of sanctions as an EU foreign policy. France links the sanctions policy to concrete demands, but it also realizes that it might not get everything it asks for.