European Council on Foreign Relations

The end of French foreign policy as we know it?

Mere weeks after France saw its icon Gérard Depardieu defect to Russia to a steady chorus of jingoistic booing, another monument is in peril. The fear today is that Charles de Gaulle might follow suit – and cause an equally protracted period of national soul-searching.

Initial budget projections for France’s defence effort started leaking yesterday. The talk is not of freezing expenditure to adapt to the new financial context. It is not of a sensible ‘dip’ in resources, to ensure the French MoD pulls its shift in the war on deficits. With significant rounds of cuts planned across the board domestically, the military cannot expect to escape wholly unscathed on the count of its current foreign engagements. Neither is the talk is of scaling down – that is, of maintaining the same army, but less of it. Nor even is it of scrapping this or that specific capability – like the Dutch did recently with battle tanks and the Danes with submarines.

No – the talk is of a shift so massive that it would simply change the face of French foreign policy as we know it. To put it briefly, France would lose its capacity to project power abroad. It would no longer be an ‘expeditionary’ power – that is, it would no longer have the ambition or capacity to send regular armed forces outside domestic borders, enter a foreign theatre first, engage, autonomously do battle, and then stay there to see it out. In short, it would lose its capacity to do Mali.

French defence would still be tasked with ensuring sovereignty and protecting territorial integrity – albeit with an unlikely combination of nuclear deterrence and domestic policing. And it would still have the capacity to send special forces to areas where France’s vital interests are at stake. But it would lose its ability to send regular troops to wrestle a country from the grip of radical jihadist groups, to name but one – entirely theoretical – example.

The worse case scenario makes even bleaker reading – 30 regiments disbanded, Rafale fighter jet production lines unplugged, the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier sold off to Brazil or India and the flagship A400M programme scrapped.

Understandably, the cushioned corridors of the old rue saint Dominique are rather reeling from the shock. Such a strategic set-up we can be pretty sure would be quite unprecedented in France’s long military history. It would cause not just a shift in military paradigms. It would bring about a vast redefinition of what France stands for and how it sees itself acting on the global stage. It calls into question all engrained intellectual and cultural mindsets.

We are not there yet. The worst case scenario seems improbable for a number of reasons – not least that the Charles de Gaulle is, after all, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier. It would not do either at this point to discard the possibility of a media strategy: the thinking at the Ministry of Finance might be that by brandishing the apocalyptic option it can hope to shepherd through the dismal one.

That is the best we can expect, bar a last minute change of heart. Even then, we risk giving France’s much cherished Gaullist gusto a very shabby send off.

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