France, in search of a world power, still struggles to obtain it

For France, this week’s geopolitical drama – its nixed submarine sale in Australia, and its furious response to the United States taki...


For France, this week’s geopolitical drama – its nixed submarine sale in Australia, and its furious response to the United States taking the plunge – sums up a problem the once-powerful nation has struggled with for decades: how to assert itself as an independent power, which French leaders see as essential, while maintaining the alliances on which they know that France leans.

Reconciling this dilemma between independence and dependence has animated and hampered French strategy since World War II left most of Europe subject to foreign superpowers.

Although Americans sometimes see the French will as driven by vanity or the desire to reclaim a long lost imperial pride, French rulers are keenly aware that they are leading a middle power in a world dominated by larger ones.

The planned submarine sale follows a long line of movements calibrated to project French might, maintaining the country’s ability to rule its own destiny, while aligning itself with the allies Paris knows it needs. , paradoxically, help.

But the loss of the contract highlighted the difficulty of achieving both. France’s response too. Recalling his ambassador in Washington was supposed to show he wasn’t afraid to stand up to even the allies. At the same time, in seeking European support against perceived American betrayal, Paris demonstrated that it felt compelled to seek outside support even in this case.

“For the French, independence has always meant autonomy,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

“But it was never 100 percent independent. What matters is that he is 99% independent, ”he said, but added that this leads to“ fundamental tensions ”that cannot be resolved but managed.

The story behind which French leaders think they must try anyway, and the challenges they have faced since, both underscore why this week’s events have so infuriated Paris.

The war and its aftermath, which left Europe divided between American and Soviet forces and saw Washington exert new pressure on its now junior allies, many of whom were also occupied militarily, convinced the French that accepting a future among so many others in a – a led alliance, like the British and West Germans did, would mean subjugation.

The arrival of the nuclear era, with its threat of total annihilation, convinced the French that they would have to ensure their own way in the world, even if it meant sometimes upsetting the allies they would need help for. to do.

Charles de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969, asked for Washington’s help in unifying Western Europe against the Soviets. But he also undermined American influence at every moment, to better assert French leadership instead.

He oversaw the emergence of France as a nuclear power, expelled American troops from France, withdrew from NATO and tried to persuade West Germany to loosen its ties with that same alliance.

“The fact that he did so with the expectation of continued protection from the NATO alliance only added to the exasperation of the Americans,” historian John Lewis Gaddis said. wrote.

In 1967, de Gaulle commissioned a report exploring a nuclear strategy called “defense in all directions” capable of “intervening anywhere in the world”. It was a bold statement of global ambition, based on entirely self-taught deterrence.

But in practice, France’s nuclear posture was both “national” – designed to deter the Soviets without outside help – and reluctantly “recognized, even tacitly, the relationship between decried American deterrence and French deterrence”, scholar Philip H. Gordon. wrote.

The nuclear strikes were designed to support an expected American intervention and, if necessary, to compel it through escalation – a fitting summary of France’s ambition to support, act independently and compel the Americans at the same time. .

It is a more complex formulation than independence: it recognizes and even exploits dependence on the United States. And it is a model that France has since followed, with no less a sense of existential issues, through the events of this week.

As the era of nuclear dead ends has subsided, France has turned to more contemporary tools. He takes advantage of his seat on the United Nations Security Council to act as a diplomatic peer of the great powers. It sends peacekeepers to global hot spots. And he sells sophisticated weapons abroad.

“This independent streak, the Gaullist streak that led to the independence of nuclear weapons, is also true in the commercial realm,” said Vipin Narang, political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Their fingerprints were everywhere in all countries of concern during the Cold War,” he added, referring to new nuclear states like Israel and India.

Arms exports bring France a direct military relationship with strategically placed states and independent powers, particularly in Asia, particularly India and Vietnam.

French President Emmanuel Macron sought a more united approach than de Gaulle. Although it has signed an EU trade deal with China, it has also aligned itself with the US push to contain it, by exerting pressure in Europe and supplying weapons to people. like-minded countries abroad. .

“We have tried, from our point of view, with the submarine contract, to develop an autonomous but not disconnected contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific,” Tertrais said. “It was a positive contribution of two middle powers to a common agenda. “

But Mr. Macron maintained this streak of independence, pushing the European Union, for example, to assume regional military functions of NATO led by Washington.

And France has learned that Washington does not hesitate to act independently.

“The French have been ruthless in their arms deals in the past,” Narang said. As he understood the rage of Paris, he added: “When someone else is playing this same game, the French get mad.”

The withdrawal of the French ambassador can look like a diplomatic crisis. But he’s following that same long-standing strategy. As de Gaulle reasoned, little shows a willingness to assert interests independent of those of Washington like a diplomatic thumb in the eye of the Americans.

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Minister of Foreign Affairs, sought to muster a broader reaction, telling a French news channel that European nations must unite to defend their collective interests, even against the Americans.

But Mr Macron has so far struggled to deliver a major blow against the Americans.

He highlights the challenge in his 21st century update on Gaullism: cultivating a united Europe that can compare to the United States or China. This was to provide France, as an informal leader, with a vehicle of its ambitions and, for all of Europe, to escape American domination.

“France’s request is important: she wants these countries to come to see her and not the United States as their protector”, Ben Judah, Franco-British analyst at the Atlantic Council, tweeted.

And that mission is complicated by the same independent streak and the global ambitions that drive it in the first place. France’s insistence on drawing closer to Russia as a great power and a member of the UN Security Council, for example, irritates European states and undermines hopes for unity.

“This tension is very difficult to resolve,” admitted Mr. Tertrais. “I’m not sure this can be resolved.”

Europe’s hitherto discreet response to French calls for unity, like so many other moments over the past week, reminds us that the contradictions within the strategy of France, dependent but independent, European but global, peer-to-peer premieres will inevitably erupt.

The struggle to manage these contradictions is not new anyway, for Paris or Washington.

In 1992, Mr Gordon, the specialist in French politics, wrote that the disputes in the midst of the First Gulf War showed “the limits of its so-called independence”.

The two capitals had left wishing for better alignment on global issues, if only for their common values ​​and agendas.

But this would only be possible if “both parties do their utmost to reassure the other,” wrote Gordon, who is discovering exactly how difficult it can be in his current job, as deputy advisor to the government. national security in the White House. .



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Newsrust - US Top News: France, in search of a world power, still struggles to obtain it
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