The French Lead

10 February 2022

The French Lead

Following Macron.

By Robert Kilconner

I cannot be certain whether President Macron reads the Shaw Sheet but he probably does. Perhaps his aides summarise it for him on a Thursday morning or peut-etre he reads it in bed in the Elysee stifling his national resentment in his admiration for our analysis. “Ah, if only un Francais could sink like zat e would be le croissant complete. Descartes, pah, il est rien en comparison”. Or maybe not.  However it be, he seems to have taken on board the criticism made by my colleague John Watson of the aggressive use of sanctions against Russia (see “Dealing with Russia” in the issue of 27 January).

Unlike Liz Truss who is off to Moscow on a Dennis the Menace style “bash the Ruskies” mission where she will no doubt be photographed looking square jawed and determinedly telling us how she has threatened dire consequences and sanctions – perhaps wearing a furry hat with cloth earpieces to keep out cold and sense alike – Macron’s object in meeting Putin is different.

“We must protect our European brothers by offering a new balance that can preserve their sovereignty and peace. At the same time this has to be done while respecting Russia and understanding its modern traumas”.

Indeed so, Mr President, if it can be done.

Whether or not Macron succeeds in brokering a new deal with Russia, his departure from the standard Nato script underlies a difference in approach between France and the US. The Americans, as always, are keen to take effective action, a tendency which lies deep in the natural characteristics of their people and has its source in the self-confidence of a pioneer nations. To see it at its best, watch someone struggling with a heavy bag at an airport. The first person to help them is always an American, slipping off his jacket and saying “I’ll do that for you, Buddy”. The European is more likely to stand back and summon a member of staff to help. These instincts inform government behaviour and neither approach is necessarily better than the other. Rather it depends on the problem being addressed; and where, as now, the ultimate aim must be to bring Russia into the international order rather than to exclude it, then listening, talking and suggesting are more likely to succeed than threats. Well done, Mr Macron.

Needless to say there have been sneers in the press about Macron trying to improve his profile in an election year and needless to say they have been fuelled by an uncomfortable feeling that France is positioning itself as the diplomatic leader of Europe while the UK hangs on the American coat tails. Of course there is some truth in that and has been for many years. Sometimes it has been a good thing and the relationship between Thatcher and Reagan probably meant that in those days a high proportion of the West’s strategic thinking came from London. Whether closeness to the Americans gives real influence, however, depends heavily on the state of American politics at the time. Thatcher clearly influenced Reagan; Kennedy listened to Macmillan; George W worked closely with Blair; but in the current strident state of US politics listening is rather out of fashion and I suspect that the UK is regarded as a sort of cosmetic cover, useful for turning American operations into international ones.

Which poses a question for the long term. Should we keep all our eggs in the American basket or, while retaining our commitment to Nato, should we take our part in developing a distinctive European voice, probably under the leadership of France? There is nothing inconsistent between this and being outside the EU. Indeed, cooperation on the foreign policy front might begin to assuage some of the bitterness caused by economic severance. Still, our stance should not rest on domestic factors but rather on helping to solve the problems which the international community has to address. Would the international community benefit from the growth of Europe as a separate power, cooperative with but not subservient to, the United States? If we have any confidence that the pragmatic ways of Europe have real value then the answer must be “yes” and we should give Mr Macron’s proposals a constructive hearing. If it irks us that they come from a Frenchman we must swallow our pride.

Cover page image: Remi Jouan / Wikimedia Commons

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