It could hardly have been a more startling contrast: just a few weeks apart, new French President Emmanuel Macron was lauded first by Vladimir Putin’s fiercest critics, and then by his strongest supporters.
The former were delighted to see Macron, standing next to Putin in the Versailles palace, describing Russian state media Sputnik and RT as “organs of influence and propaganda” and talking of his resolve to take action in Syria should the state commit another chemical attack.
But Putin’s supporters were almost as happy when Macron, a few weeks later, vowed in an interview with eight European newspapers to “end a form of neo-conservatism imported to France in the last ten years”.
In the interview, Macron also criticized foreign military interventions, particularly US-led, and particularly in the Middle East. “Democracy isn’t made from the outside without looking at the preference of the local people,” he said. “France didn’t participate in the Iraq war, which was the right decision. France was wrong to act the way it did in Libya.”
The declaration prompted RT’s French edition to publish what may have been its first positive piece on the French president, titled “Macron’s foreign policy: towards a revolutionary turn?”.
Macron immediately took to heart his role of France’s military chief and main foreign policy handler, as inscribed in the constitution of the Fifth Republic and which has been the practice of every president since. Macron met with Putin less than a fortnight after being officially instated as President, and his performance at the G7 meeting was met with wide appraisal.
The way Macron will handle international issues, particularly when it comes to Russia, still remains unclear for many. In May, Politico described Macron as “hardened” by the way Russian state media had treated him, with analysts arguing that a Russian information campaign against him had backfired and turned the president into a “Russia hawk”.
Yet, a few weeks later, he would say that he didn’t think “Russia is looking to weaken us”, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs publicly conceded that Macron could see a “window of opportunity” with Moscow on Syria. He also abandoned the ousting of Bashar Al-Assad as a preliminary condition for negotiations in Syria, a staple of French foreign policy since the beginning of the Syrian conflict.
These declarations prompted some French foreign policy experts, many of whom supported Macron during his presidential campaign, to express dismay at a perceived U-turn on foreign policy.
It is not clear, however, that this is the case. During his presidential campaign, Macron remained quiet on the foreign policy front, except for his staunch (and unusual, for a French politician) defense of the European Union. But his choice of advisors and his agenda already point to a different stance on international issues compared to his predecessor, François Hollande.
Two people close to the French president, Dominique de Villepin and Hubert Védrine, are worth mentioning here. Neither of them hold an official position in the current government, but both have been instrumental in shaping Macron’s foreign policy views, according to several reports in French media.
Dominique de Villepin, a former Minister of Foreign Affairs who announced his support for Macron in April and allegedly acted as an informal advisor, was one of Macron’s most symbolic catches. Despite a long political career, De Villepin is best remembered for a single event still considered to be the high point of French diplomacy: a speech at the UN Security Council in February 2003, during which De Villepin voiced France’s opposition to a US-led invasion of Iraq. The speech has since been hailed as a landmark of independent French foreign policy, able to oppose the United States when its actions run counter to France’s interests.
In subsequent years, De Villepin has also been an advocate of strengthening dialogue with both Russia and Syria. “Let’s talk with Putin, let’s talk with the current Syrian regime, in a process which must lead to Al-Assad leaving power and being replaced by someone acceptable for all parties”, he said a few months ago.
Hubert Védrine is one of the architects of Macron’s favored foreign policy ideology: “gaullo-mittérandisme”, named for two former presidents, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. In a 2015 interview with the French daily Libération, Védrine described his vision for France’s foreign policy:
The foundations of gaullo-mittérandisme can be described as follows: France is a western country, but not only. It’s a friend and an ally of the United States, but not aligned. It’s an essential member of the European Union, one of its engines, but not only. It has its own history, its own interests, the ability to think and decide independently, its own culture, francophonie, etc […] gaullo-mittérandisme is the best foreign policy for a country like France which can’t and doesn’t want to dominate the world, but has strong interests to defend.
By putting an emphasis on independence and the need for France to act according to its own interests, proponents of gaullo-mittérandisme claim Paris has been unable, in the last decade, to do such things. Whether or not this is true (the debate is not a new one, and it resurfaces at nearly every presidential election), Macron’s comment about “ending a form of neo-conservatism imported in France” clearly implies he believes it.
Of course, Macron is unlikely to simply copy De Villepin and Védrine’s vision for France’s foreign policy. His strong pro-European stance and desire to bolster the Paris-Berlin axis tend to set him apart from traditional gaullo-mitterandists, who often view the European Union with suspicion.
Macron’s first actions in the international arena and his public statements on his willingness to engage with Russia indicate that he has come to at least some of these views on his own. He has not, for example, publicly endorsed Védrine’s idea of turning Ukraine into a neutral buffer state between Russia and the EU. His official campaign, however, stated that he would not support any further extension of NATO “beyond the Balkans, Sweden and Finland”.
Likewise, Macron is not preparing a full “reset” with Russia: his declarations on Ukraine have been in line with previous French and Western statements, with the French President stating Paris would not recognize Crimea’s annexation. And though during his role as Economic Minister Macron claimed sanctions on Russia could be lifted, he has made no such statements as president.
On the other hand, it seems Macron is willing to engage with Moscow more decisively than previous French administrations, particularly on Syria and issues related to terrorism. His criticism of previous French foreign policy influenced by neo-conservatism, combined with the Trump administration’s unpredictability and anti-globalist stance, makes it more likely that Macron will distance himself from US foreign policy. All said and done, Macron may be more wont to deal with Russia than meets the eye.