One month after his stunning victory, and three days before an unexpectedly large parliamentary win for his newly created party (La République en Marche), Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president of the French Fifth Republic, had every reason to be optimistic and enthusiastic. At the Viva Technology conference in Paris on June 15, 2017, he proclaimed the “beginning of a new momentum” in France: “I want France to be a startup nation, a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.” Although his enthusiasm could pass for naivety, the self-made political entrepreneur had himself achieved the improbable. An unknown technocrat only two years prior, Macron singlehandedly triumphed as France’s once fossilized political landscape collapsed.
Macron’s promise of a new beginning also has extensive foreign-policy implications. Under the Macron presidency, France seeks to reinvent itself as a “startup power” that is agile, flexible, creative, and able to play great-power politics while leveraging multilateralism to advance both European and French interests. It hopes to take advantage of the acceleration of history instead of simply enduring it. The April 14 strikes on Syria in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, along with the United States and the UK, demonstrates France’s promptness to use force to uphold international norms. French decisiveness to reassert itself on the international stage should not come as a surprise, as the country’s transformation actually predates Macron—it has worked in the last decade to get rid of historical hindrances, old habits and moral rigidity.
Whether the French project will succeed remains to be seen. France’s repositioning occurs as the post–Cold War international order is crumbling at quick pace. The United States, once a pillar of stability, has become unpredictable and less reliable. The European Union, plagued with internal disagreements and distrust toward democratic institutions, has yet to achieve significance on the world scene. Non-state actors and some revisionist powers, such as Russia, sow confusion among allies and destabilize the international-security architecture. An old power with a varnish of modernity, France will keep struggling with internal centrifugal forces (populism, nationalist retrenchment) and intra-European competition for years to come. Yet, Macron’s France seems determined to ride the storm, with the vigor of those who have survived the direst hardships. The challenge is now to infuse the form with substance, build credentials and gain a reputation of reliability among the international community, for startups often die from failing to transform an idea into a working business model.
Five Minutes to Midnight
Jacques Chirac’s 2003 prediction of the rise of a “multipolar world” as France opposed the war on Iraq may have been a bit premature, yet the French president was prescient, if ten years too early, in anticipating the loss of U.S. hegemony in world affairs and gradual American withdrawal. The French experienced this new reality firsthand on “the day when everything fell apart” according to then-foreign minister Fabius, or “liberation day” for president Obama. On August 30, 2013, confronted to the Syrian regime use of chemical weapons, the world’s sole superpower felt crushed by responsibilities. President Obama decided against strikes, refusing to even “lead from behind,” and left the French government in the lurch. Both 2003 and 2013 served as wake-up calls for France: effective leadership must be backed by power. In hindsight, France in 2003 was a voice of wisdom only to be rewarded with isolation: European allies were either wary of defying the United States, or resented an arrogant France for telling them to “shut up.” Worse, as the French were chasing grandeur at the United Nations, they were losing rank, and clout, on all fronts.
The early twenty-first century was tough for France, which sunk deeper into la crise. Mass protests stalled most ambitious legislative reforms, while France’s unemployment flared up after the 2008 crisis, until a high of 10.6 percent in 2015. French public debt kept creeping up to reach 98.1 percent of GDP in 2017, making it difficult to conform to European requirements. Traditional parties suffered humiliating defeats after another, starting with Le Pen’s good performance in 2002 and the French public’s resounding “no” to the 2005 referendum on the European constitutional treaty, which put the European project on hold. Unfulfilled promises of equality and a strict interpretation of laïcité—the French principle of secularism which largely excludes religious symbols from the public sphere—combined to produce an explosive social cocktail, illustrated by the 2005 youth riots in the banlieues and the recent “Burkini” controversy. Meanwhile Le Pen’s Front National continued gaining momentum through its “de-demonization” campaign. For most of the past decade, French society suffered from sclerosis, indulging in declinist theories.
On the world stage, France’s star was fading: the French welfare model was deemed uncompetitive and non-reformable, and its unique assimilation model increasingly viewed as ineffective. France’s share in the world’s global output dropped by a third between 2003 and 2018. The country lost eight ranks in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index between 2008 and 2017. By contrast, Germany, the former “sick man of Europe,” having overcome the reunification burden, became Europe’s leading and most respected voice.
France's most tragic days were still to come. Altogether 245 people have been killed in terror attacks on French soil since 2015, 95 percent of them in three highly traumatic events (Charlie Hebdo, Paris attacks, Nice), targeting the highest symbols of French society (press freedom, Bastille Day, joie de vivre). Although new coordinated attacks have been successfully prevented since 2015, the threat of terrorism is today a constant preoccupation—42 percent of French citizens say that terrorism is in their top three worries, a figure similar to Israelis, and in 2016, 88 percent were dreading a terrorist attack in the next few months.
While France’s decline had been slow and insidious, the unraveling of the world order between 2013 and 2016 seemed both devastating and unescapable. Violent readjustments came to confirm the shifts in the global power structure, and brought the West to the brink of disaster. The chemical taboo fell in Syria, adding to proliferation concerns in Iran and North Korea. Revisionist powers such as Russia used the opportunity to trample upon well-established rules, adopting non-state actor tactics, notably in Crimea and Donbass. Terrorists made territorial gains and attracted foreign fighters, more than one thousand of them French citizens. Waves of refugees shook to the core a Europe unable to reconcile its universal values with fears for safety and stability. Nationalist populism gained in all corners of the Western world disrupting the status quo, from the Brexit vote to the election of Donald Trump.
The world’s fragmentation could have precipitated France’s further decline. Yet crises bring both risks and opportunities. Faced with terrorism and populism, France, to the surprise of many, some French included, did not collapse. On the contrary, the shock wave, reverberating through the entire nation, woke the country up. In these times of extreme international volatility and unprecedented security threats, France came to the realization that, in order to recover control over its own fate and preserve its national integrity, it had to re-think its international role and re-boot.
Let De Gaulle’s France Go
Few would have predicted in 2016 that a French president would soon be hailed as a champion of the international liberal order. The election of Emmanuel Macron, an EU-enthusiastic leader, put a sudden stop to declinist theories and brought hope to reformers and pro-Europeans. Though unexperienced on the world stage, he acted as a magnet for international media in search of a new hero. Most had such low expectations for France that they dubbed Macron’s rise a “miracle,” which became a self-fulfilling prophecy as France swiftly climbed to the top of the 2017 Soft Power30 Index.
In fact, France’s former lethargy and the “Macron miracle” are both overhyped, at least on the foreign-policy front. The country of Richelieu had already been undergoing a silent revolution to transform itself into a more agile power, under both Sarkozy and Hollande’s leadership. In 2008, France returned to NATO’s integrated military command structures, a strategic shift since the country’s special status in NATO had long been an essential pillar of its foreign and security policy. Yet, it had also become a hindrance in its relations with Atlanticist European allies, and reintegrating the NATO structure allowed France to sweep away suspicions about its EU defense projects, while mending fences with the United States. When Crimea was annexed, France began the next shift: it cancelled the sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia, bolstered its declaratory nuclear policy, and strengthened its partnership with Estonia, demonstrating that Europe would stand united in front of the Russian challenge.
In another radical move, France scrapped its old diplomatic conceptions of Africa. Faced with emboldened Asian and Middle Eastern powers on the continent, France was forced to revise its patronizing diplomacy. It took a decade, some lawsuits and a few political dramas to finally abandon its most complex legacy, la Françafrique, severing unhealthy diplomatic and personal ties with former African colonies in favor of pragmatic economic and security cooperation. Taking advantage of a reformed military apparatus that allowed for more flexible force deployment, it focused on stability efforts in a troubled Central Africa, and launched a massive effort on regional capacity-building, military training and counterterrorism in the Sahel, Europe’s southern antechamber.