In the war in Ukraine…
The latest news from the foreign front is not very reassuring for France, and it is not only for the worrying escalation of the war in Ukraine. The Elysée is currently attesting a seizure in its foreign affairs, continent-wide and not. France’s leading strategic analyst François Heisbourg, in the BBC interview given on Monday, October 3, depicted a disappointing image of France’s role in the war, referring to its small contribution and reflections on it.
Just back from Ukraine, Heisbourg reported that France is dramatically losing its influence in the war scene since the Ukrainians are not even trying to get more from President Macron. They seek support elsewhere, treating the French as “irrelevant”. According to available data, France is positioned ninth in countries supporting Ukraine. The contribution of its supplies weigh less than 2%, placing it behind states such as the US, UK, Italy, Poland, and even smaller countries like Estonia.
To rebuild France’s security credentials, it is vital to act immediately and return to the centre of the plot. If not, the consequence for France could be getting out of the international games. This would be ironic since Macron announced its foreign policy projects for France’s pivotal role in the new global order just a few months ago. Given his excellent relationship with President Putin, he even offered to act as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Now, having failed on such a front, Macron is turning to the new strategy of a joint European front.
In this context, the head of the Elysée will fulfil part of the Ukrainian order of Caesar howitzers, initially intended for Denmark, according to an agreement reached with Copenhagen. Furthermore, at the National Assembly on October 3, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne made a speech to reaffirm their participation in the war. The editor of the National Defence Review, General Jérome Pellistrandi, contested the blaming of France for its scarce supplies, saying that it is an inevitable consequence of the French shortage of artillery due to its military commitment in other regions like the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific. In this regard, it is worth ascertaining how the French involvement in those regions is going.
In the Sahel…
France was committed to the Barkhane Operation in the Sahel since 2014 but after going through a process of rejection in all the involved states caused by the French tendencies to re-establish a neo-colonial dependency, Macron announced the end of such Operation in June 2021. Despite the Elysée involving other European countries in the Sahel affair, the sensation conveyed was that their actual aim was obtaining the necessary support to succeed in their scopes. Indeed, the relations with Berlin faced some friction on this side.
In Mali, as well as in Burkina Faso, Chad and Niger, the anti-French sentiment grew up for the dissatisfaction related to the poor results of the counter-terror operations. The locals felt the presence as an occupation more than genuine aid assistance; they even deemed France’s presence a violation of their sovereignty and an endangering factor for their security. Consequently, people organised more bloody protests to banish the French from their territories. The most recent case is the Burkina Faso assault on the French embassy after the coup d’etat directed to dismiss the “pro-France” President.
President Macron, forced to withdraw the troops from Mali this July, responded by heading to Niger to define his new Sahel strategy, which entails the wish of intervention in the Gulf of Guinea states, such as Benin, Togo and Ivory Coast. It seems that the Fashoda syndrome is not over yet. However, the concern about France’s ability to achieve preferable outcomes this time comes spontaneously from the events of the last decade. Such a failure in those territories feeds a spread of anti-French sentiment and alarmingly grows the Russian favour fostered by the Russian misinformation campaigns. In turn, this appealed to the Russian Wagner mercenaries to furnish their contribution in all areas.
And in the Indo-Pacific?
The position of France in this regard is probably the most delicate. Indeed, the Indo-Pacific region is of primary importance to the national economy. France is present there via its overseas territories (Mayotte and La Réunion islands, Scattered Islands and French Southern and Antarctic Territories, New Caledonia, Wallis and Futuna, and French Polynesia), that worth 1.6 million French people, and three-quarters of the French exclusive economic zone (the second-largest) is located in the Indo-Pacific. Moreover, the region represents around 18% of French imports and around 15% of French exports.
This explains a part of France’s interest in keeping its influence stable in those areas, but there is a lot more at stake. For French strategic and military interests, the Indo-Pacific outposts are crucial, particularly for its declared aim to furnish a “third way” to the US-China bipolarity. It also represents France as the perfect candidate for the perpetration of good offices between US-China and between them and the EU. Given the increasing tension in the area, that role would give France a powerful position, spendable at any eventual negotiating table.
Currently, for the French, the Indo-Pacific outposts are already a gate away to Asia and represent an opportunity to have an open dialogue with the US. In February, France stated the plans for its EU Presidency, and it made clear that the pivot to Indo-Pacific is one of the goals, involving the EU states in the commitment towards the area and setting it as an ongoing strategy in the EU foreign policy agenda. Macron is putting a significant weight on his shoulders, and the question is whether he can manage it. He needs the support of the EU to wish to play a relevant part in the area, and if France does not play it safe in the Ukrainian war now, it will compromise its future global role. Furthermore, French sovereignty is already being contested in almost all its overseas territories, and the loss of all or part of these “would inevitably lead to a loss of France’s influence in the eyes of its allies and partners.”
In addition, French relations with a vital actor of the Pacific, Australia, suffered a blow after the AUKUS deal on nuclear submarines between Australia, UK and US. This being said, it is hard to consider France as able to influence the Indo-Pacific scene or any other. Instead, it is more likely to play only a secondary importance role unless the Elysée establishes good alliances within a short time, in the EU, in the AU or maybe in the ASEAN, given the announced priority of building an essential partnership with India.