When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Western Europe last week to drum up support for his country’s fight against Russia, he made a last-minute stopover in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron was lucky to get the nod.
Macron’s attitude toward Ukraine’s war effort has frequently proved inscrutable to allies who wonder why France seemed to be hedging its bets by pursuing dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin and touting the need for “security guarantees” for Moscow.
While German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has suffered bruising criticism over the slow pace of his decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, Paris’ contribution to the overall war effort has been substantially smaller, both in absolute terms and as a percentage of gross domestic product, than Berlin’s, according to a ranking from the Kiel Institute for World Economy updated at the end of last year.
Even accounting for Macron’s more recent pledge to deliver Caesar howitzers and, jointly with Italy, a MAMBA air defense system, France’s overall support effort is likely to remain well below that of the biggest helpers in 2023. As of November, Poland had pledged more than €3 billion in aid, while the United Kingdom has offered more than €7 billion. France, by contrast, offered €1.4 billion — placing the country well below Western allies in terms of a percentage of GDP.
When Zelenskyy left Ukraine to visit Western leaders last week, Paris didn’t issue a formal invitation — and the meeting with Macron nearly didn’t happen. The French president had originally planned to spend the evening at the theater with his wife. It was only when aides saw footage of Zelenskyy’s solemn address at Westminster Hall in London that they rushed out an invitation and arranged for the late-evening visit in Paris. (Macron’s office was working on bringing Zelenskyy to Paris at a slightly later date, but ended up moving the plans forward.)
No wonder Zelenskyy nearly missed Paris.
When asked why France has sometimes pursued a divergent path on Ukraine compared with other Western allies, French officials defend Macron. In an interview with POLITICO, former French President François Hollande said it made sense to speak to Putin before the invasion to “deprive him of any arguments or pretexts.” A French diplomat added: “It was either that or do nothing. He [Macron] decided to try diplomacy — I don’t think we can blame him for that.”
As for France’s tepid contribution to the war effort, officials argue that, as continental Europe’s premier military power, Paris has other security responsibilities, namely defending Europe’s southern flank, and must retain some capacity. Sending France’s Leclerc tanks, they say, doesn’t make sense because they are no longer in production and couldn’t easily be replaced.
But when asked if France is leading on Ukraine, the same officials tend to shrug.
For François Heisbourg, senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Macron’s zig-zagging approach to the Ukraine war effort represents a missed opportunity not just in terms of hard power — but in terms of Macron’s larger ambition, spelled out in his 2017 Sorbonne speech, to position himself as a European leader in the lineage of former President François Mitterrand, former Prime Minister Michel Rocard or former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
“2022 was a year of missed chances,” said Heisbourg. Macron “spent 15 days going around telling everyone who would listen that Russia required security guarantees, as if Russia wasn’t grown-up enough to request them itself.”
Macron “can still make up the lost time, but the precondition for that is to be extremely clear on Ukraine, and from there to recover legitimacy among the central European states.”
France’s ‘open road’
The irony is that in geopolitical terms, Paris has rarely had a better chance to lead Europe.
Britain has left the European Union, removing a major liberal counterweight to France’s statism. Germany’s Olaf Scholz has been tied down by coalition politics and the impact of Berlin’s failed bet on Russian energy. France, by contrast, enjoyed stable government and the benefits of relative energy independence thanks to its early embrace of nuclear power. As far as Paris’ position in Europe was concerned, “the road was open,” said Heisbourg.
In some ways, Macron has exploited this opportunity. Paris has been by far the most vocal advocate for a robust EU response to U.S. President Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, a bumper package of subsidies for green business. When he traveled to Washington in November, the French president very much looked like a European leader delivering grievances to a trade rival — and bringing home results for all of the EU.
Yet France’s attempts at economic leadership within the EU haven’t translated into a wider bid to become Europe’s security guarantor and consensus builder. “No one has replaced Angela Merkel at the Council table,” argued one Eastern European diplomat when asked who was currently “leading” the EU. Hollande and several diplomats lamented the deterioration of Franco-German ties under Macron, saying that it undermined the bloc’s coherence and any hope of a more integrated approach to defense.
As the war in Ukraine nears its first anniversary, Macron has pivoted toward much more full-throated support for Kyiv. In his New Year’s address to the French, he promised Ukrainians to “help you until victory” — making the rhetorical switch from “Russia can’t win the war.” He’s left a door open to training Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter jets and made a significant contribution to the MAMBA missile defense system. “Toward victory, toward peace, toward Europe,” he tweeted during Zelenskyy’s visit to Paris.
Yet France also remains one of the most skeptical countries in the EU when it comes to accepting Ukraine into the bloc, and its overall contribution still pales in comparison to other countries.
Macron still has three years in office, plenty of time to double down on his newfound interest in Ukrainian “victory.”
But with street protests over planned pension reforms now dogging his presidency at home, the golden opportunity is fading.
Source : Politico