On the Global Stage, as in Qatar, France Is Still Second Best

Faisal Al Yafai

Image courtesy of Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP

When France scored their first goal in the World Cup final, the country’s President Emmanuel Macron leapt to his feet in delight. By the end, having joined the defeated French players on the pitch, he looked dejected. It was a scene that mirrors Macron’s own political travails on the world stage – extensive travel, an energetic performance but still, in his tussles with Russia, with the United States or with Germany, coming off second best.

Macron is now in the first year of his second term as president. With Germany’s Angela Merkel out of the picture and the shrunken island of Britain relegated beyond the European Union inner circle, he is the preeminent politician of Europe – one who believes passionately in Europe and wants to do things differently. Yet in the midst of immense challenges, he can’t seem to get enough people to agree with him.

No challenge has been as great as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In the run-up to his election in April, Macron leveraged the presidential office to project the image of a statesman, in contrast to his rivals. But after his election, Macron has sought to be the main Western interlocutor with Vladimir Putin, a role that has occasionally put him at odds with the rest of Europe.

This month brought the latest spat. In an interview, Macron suggested Russia ought to be offered security guarantees as part of any future negotiations to end the war. “One of the essential points we must address … is the [Russian] fear that NATO comes right up to its doors,” he said. His comments drew a formal response from several EU countries, including the three Baltic states, as well as of course Ukraine.

At the heart of this disagreement are two different political visions of Russia’s place in or alongside Europe. The Baltic states, Ukraine and other countries that feel vulnerable to Russian encroachment like Poland see Russia as a straightforward threat, and want – indeed expect – Western powers to contain that threat.

These states are concerned that France is implicitly accepting the Russian narrative that NATO expansion caused the war. The former Lithuanian foreign minister noted that Russia has all the security guarantees it needs, as long as it doesn’t “attack, annex or occupy its neighbors.”

Macron’s vision is different, recognizing, as he has said, that Russia won’t stop being a neighbor to Europe after the invasion, and thus a security architecture is needed that doesn’t endlessly see Moscow as an enemy.

Not only does that vision put him at odds with much of Europe, but it doesn’t appear to have yielded any tangible results. For all his conversations with Putin, Macron’s diplomacy did not stop the invasion, and doesn’t appear to have brought about any tempering of the war, at least publicly. Putin may have listened politely, but his mind was evidently not changed.

The same is true on the other side of the Atlantic. Macron was in the US for talks at the end of November. It was something of a charm offensive, but at the heart of it was, again, a major point of contention between two powers, the price of American gas.

Macron is angry because the US sells its own stocks of liquefied natural gas to Europe for almost four times its price in the US. The US, Macron says, “is a producer of cheap gas that they are selling to us at a high price.” That is not how allies are meant to behave, he says, especially when they are meant to be showing a united front to Russia. On this, at least, most Europeans would agree.

Yet despite expansive talk from Joe Biden on close ties and the war in Ukraine, there was little movement on Macron’s central contention: standing shoulder to shoulder with Kyiv is exacting a far heavier toll on Europeans than on Americans.

Even closer to home, Macron is having limited success. The relationship between Paris and Berlin is essential to the wider EU, but Macron and Olaf Scholz, the German chancellor, can’t seem to see eye to eye.

In particular, they appear to be on completely different pages when it comes to defense. Macron has long been a proponent of European countries being less reliant on the US for defense.

If anything ought to have convinced Berlin of the wisdom of such autonomy, it would have been a major war on European soil. But from Paris’ perspective, Scholz is prevaricating: on the one hand, suddenly announcing a historic change in February and spending €100 billion to modernize Germany’s forces. On the other hand, Germany suddenly announced in October that it would create an air and missile defense system together with 14 other NATO countries – conspicuously leaving out France, the EU’s only nuclear-armed power. Even when Macron’s arguments are accepted, his solutions are not.

As with the French performance on the pitch, Macron’s lack of success isn’t down to a lack of talent. On the contrary, he has been energetic in his diplomacy and, particularly in the US, tried to get his message across both to politicians and the public. But there are philosophical divergences in the French worldview, and the political obstacles – in Moscow, in Washington, in Berlin – are simply too great for one man or one country. Politics, like football, is a team sport.

Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa. Twitter: @FaisalAlYafai