PART I: French Diplomacy: What values shape our alliances?

The rules of French diplomacy must be clear to all concerned

From Claire—We’re particularly pleased to publish this two-part essay by the French foreign policy and security specialist Nicolas Tenzer. Most Anglophone commentary on French foreign policy is written for an Anglophone audience; that is to say, it purports to explain France to others. This article, written for a French audience, offers a view of France explaining itself to itself. It’s a subtle but interesting difference.

By Nicolas Tenzer


The pandemic has not fundamentally rearranged the world’s geopolitical fault lines. But it has heightened threats and demonstrated, clearly, the need for international cooperation. France must, imperatively, become more assertive and self-confident in seeking allies. It must also define rules of behavior that are clear to all concerned. We must stand with people fighting for freedom and democracy, whom President Emmanuel Macron once called “freedom fighters” in an address to the UN General Assembly. And we must be consistent and purposeful in doing so.

Heightened threats

China’s persecution of the Uyghurs amounts to a crime against humanity or genocide. Hong Kong’s liberties have been stifled; Taiwan intimidated. The danger is not confined to China’s neighborhood, as the past year has made clear. We have seen, firsthand, how Chinese technologies intrude upon our private lives, the way China threatens regime opponents who have taken refuge in the West, the massive propaganda campaigns aimed at Western public opinion.1

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people and displaced a million and a half more. It would take pages to catalogue the number and the horror of Russia’s war crimes in Syria; Russia has killed more Syrian civilians than ISIS. Alexey Navalny is the only man left who could marshal a coherent opposition from Putin’s detractors. Having been poisoned with Novichok by Russia’s intelligence services, he now languishes in a Russian penal colony, and the Kremlin’s intention is clear: to murder him by other means. Putin has killed his opponents in countless numbers; they are countless, literally, because so many suspicious deaths remain unsolved. Navalny only narrowly survived the recent attempt on his life. Had it succeeded, we would not know who killed him; or at least, we would have no proof of it.

Turkey’s foreign policy, already erratic and aggressive, has of late become even more troubling. Ankara has threatened two EU members states, Greece and Cyprus, while offering unconditional support—in men and materiel—to Azerbaijan for its offensive in Nagorno-Karabakh.

It is growingly obvious to France’s president and to his counterparts in other democracies that dialogue, consultation, and compromise are insufficient to change the behavior of hostile regimes. As the recent negotiations for an EU-China trade deal show, economic cooperation with China only demonstrates to Beijing our dependence. Chastising China on matters of human rights seems to whet Beijing’s appetite for aggression. Defense Minister Florence Parly has acknowledged that engagement with Russia failed to yield concrete results, particularly in Syria and Ukraine. In fact, it has encouraged Putin further to express his contempt for democracy and human rights, domestically and abroad, among other ways by conducting destabilization operations in the very heart of Western countries. As for Turkey, Western democracies are in part divided because of Turkey’s role in NATO, but also because Europe has subcontracted to Ankara control over the influx of Syrian refugees; in either case, the West’s claim to uphold coherent standards is in jeopardy.

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel have successfully organized a European recovery plan. This plan, in a sense, represents an appeal for cooperation and solidarity within Europe. But successful cooperation in matters external to Europe; to wit, in matters of security and foreign policy, remains to be attained.

Overcoming Loneliness

It’s a common dictum that France’s so-called loneliness places an intrinsic limit on its foreign policy. In his speech to the Munich Security Conference in February of 2020, Macron offered his imprimatur to this idea.

Macron responded, rhetorically, to the many critics in Europe who accuse him of playing into Putin’s hands by engaging Russia. If we were to respond to the Kremlin’s aggression in Ukraine and Syria, he asked, who would join us? Could we count on the United States? No—and American detachment dates back to Obama; it is not just Trump. (Biden had yet to be elected.) Would Germany join us in the theater of operations? No. Berlin remains a geostrategic dwarf; it could not bear the sight of its fallen children returning in coffins from the battlefield. What about the UK? Maybe a bit more, but London is busy with other things right now—Brexit looms—and it’s shown us its fickle side: Let’s not forget that the British Parliament voted, in 2013, against intervening in Syria. Who’s left? The Nordic countries? They are attached to their neutrality. Poland and the Baltic states? No doubt their spirit is willing, but their force is weak, at least by comparison with Russia. And don’t forget how little support most of our allies offered us during our operations in the Sahel.

There is some truth to this narrative of loneliness. France’s voice is heard at the United Nations and elsewhere, to be sure, but it is not in the driver’s seat. Nonetheless, declarations of loneliness can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and maladroit policies can add loneliness to loneliness. Critics have noted that Emmanuel Macron has transformed himself from Europe’s Wunderkind into an irritant, if not a menace. His outstretched hand to Russia has baffled our allies. Never mind if at times their assessments have been too harsh: Remember, Macron’s administration never pushed to lift sanctions; Macron has denounced the Kremlin’s propaganda organs, and called Navalny’s poisoning an “assassination attempt,” all while pushing for fresh—if inadequate—sanctions on Moscow. In politics, perception matters.

It was predictable that all hope of using dialogue to lubricate France’s relationship with Moscow would be dashed. But this does not mean we are condemned to loneliness in foreign policy, as the agreement on the European recovery plan clearly shows. A new orientation in substance, process, and—especially—narrative would radically change the situation.

The key point of contention is France’s disposition toward Moscow. This is not so much about substance—no one, including me, has ever claimed we should seal off every channel of communication to the Kremlin—but about the language the President uses, a strange echo of the rhetoric of Russian disinformation, with talk of recognizing the “humiliation” Russia experienced after the fall of the Soviet Union; the need to “understand” Russia’s positions and grievances; allusions to history that are scarcely relevant to our problems today; the use of Putin’s phrase, “Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” owed to the neo-fascist Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin; the ritual invocation of “progress.”

Navalny’s poisoning caused Macron to take Putin’s regime seriously as a systemic threat. Subsequently, his tone toward the Kremlin was notably sharp; soon after, for the first time, he publicly expressed concern about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, although he ultimately refused to confront Germany. France was prepared to commit to new sanctions. Meanwhile, his secretary of state for European affairs, Clément Beaune, described dialogue with Russia as “neither unconditional nor irreversible.” In another sign of major change, the so-called 2 + 2 meeting of Russian and French foreign and defense ministers scheduled for September 2020 was postponed sine die.

Suspending discussions related to the new “architecture of security and confidence” (it’s hard to know exactly what this phrase means) would be the logical continuation of these developments, but Macron has rejected the suggestion, even though French allies would welcome it. Still, it is essential that gains the president has made at the European level with the recovery plan not disappear in favor of an initiative that will yield precisely zero results so long as Putin remains in power. Certainly, the idea for ​​this new architecture may stay, but its implementation must wait for better times.

The visibility of the Kremlin’s propaganda organs around Alexander Lukashenko, the support Russian security forces have likely offered to his thuggish regime, and Putin’s discreet efforts to prevent the emergence of a free and democratic regime in Belarus should lead us to be wary of mediation by the OSCE. Moscow could readily control the complex mechanics of this. Our quiet warnings to the Kremlin about overtaking Minsk—through some form of union or by strengthened ties between Russia and Belarus—should be credible, but the content of our warning should be sharper. We haven’t made it sufficiently clear that Moscow must have no say on the situation there and that the very idea of zones of influence is unacceptable.

Perhaps we should push Putin to let go of Lukashenko, for whom he has no respect. The results would not be guaranteed. But Europeans have little room to maneuver, save by supporting civil society and offering conditional aid from the European Union. Notably, following a meeting between Emmanuel Macron and Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaïa, the Kremlin denounced French “interference.” This illustrates the limits of any possible dialogue. Still, compared to other European countries, France seems shy in supporting Belarus’s civil society and opposition. We have not backed free Belarusian media, universities, and trade unions; nor have we welcomed Belarusian refugees and students.

France needs friends

The EU is more determined than it was in the past to define itself as a power and assert its own foreign policy. Or so it says, at least. If France were to forswear the ambiguities in its language and policies, Paris would have a historic opportunity to bridge the gaps among European countries, especially the South and the East, not least because France is now the EU’s only nuclear power and its only permanent member of the Security Council. France has the potential to be the leading force in Europe, but only if it ceases to exaggerate Europe’s potential for autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and instead plays an active and constructive role.

Beyond the problems of Russia and China, there is Turkey. The Turkish president’s policy, often described as neo-Ottoman, is a threat to the heart of Europe and requires a firm European response. But this NATO member, who has been, worryingly, fanning the flames in Nagorno-Karabakh, requires delicate and sensitive management. Certainly, the EU won’t be able to persuade Ankara to adopt a more reasonable and constructive position without help from the Biden Administration.

No matter how relieved we are by the outcome of the American election, we must find ways of strengthening not just our key alliances within Europe, but in the Asia Pacific, chiefly with Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. France has begun pursuing a more active policy in this respect, but it must overcome a certain skepticism in the region.

In all these matters, France and the EU have a vital ally in the new American administration. It would be pointless and even puerile to look for differences with the United States just for the sake of it. Indeed, as we confront Beijing and Moscow—as we ought to do—it would be insane to insist upon our differences. In other parts of the world, though, such as the Middle East and Africa, France and Europe should absolutely be at the forefront and should convince the US to do more. This is what I meant by active and constructive. We must show that we can take the initiative when it is in our mutual interest.

The multiple fronts now open to Europe and France require a reinvention, or at times a reaffirmation, of the principles of our foreign policy. We need a road map, marked by clear principles, structured by a shared vision, that shows not only the dangers ahead, but our plan to address them—a plan that has yet to be made.

This will be the subject of the second part of this essay.

Nicolas Tenzer is a senior French civil servant and the founding president of the Paris-based independent think tank, Centre d’étude et de réflexion pour l’Action politique (Center for Study and Research for Political Decision). An expert and author on foreign policy and security, he has written three official reports to the French government. He is a guest professor at Sciences-Po Paris.

This essay is based upon the French original published in The Conversation.



Claire—consider the case of journalist Laurène Beaumont, an unusually accomplished woman who studied art history and archeology at Sorbonne-IV, finished a master's degree in journalism, then worked at the most prestigious editorial offices in Paris for some years before moving to Beijing. She reported from Beijing for seven years until, as luck would have it, she married into a family from Xinjiang. Recently, she has taken issue with Western media coverage of the region; she has filed such stories as “My Xinjiang: End the tyranny of fake news.” Thanks to an investigation by Le Monde, we recently learned that Ms. Beaumont suffers what you might call a metaphysical defect: She does not exist. China invented her from whole cloth. (For more, listen to our recent China Cosmopolicast.)