A year on from his re-election as president, Emmanuel Macron is facing troubles that could hinder both his domestic agenda and international standing. While outside onlookers grouse about why France is in revolt, again, champions of EU and NATO enlargement, Ukraine, and climate action should consider the importance of French support in each of these areas – and what they can do to ensure Paris remains a strong voice on these vital questions.
Over the last year, Macron’s government has struggled to get key legislation passed through the national assembly; it has made use of special provisions and cobbled together ad hoc majorities in the hung parliament. Throughout this time, street protests have repeatedly paralysed the country. And, most recently, riots erupted after the killing of a young man by the police: in just four days, the levels of violence surpassed those of the weeks-long banlieues riots of 2005.
In some ways, this is nothing new. Protests have punctuated Macron’s time as president, most notably the gilets jaunes movement, which emerged in 2018, but which hardly calmed his hyperactivity on the international stage. Indeed, French presidents’ great latitude in foreign policy has allowed even weakened incumbents to secure foreign policy successes. Jacques Chirac led a vigorous opposition to the US intervention in Iraq in 2003; François Hollande corralled the world around the Paris climate agreement in 2015.
And – for the moment – Macron’s ambitions on foreign policy look unabated. The president embarked on several months of failed mediation with Russia in early 2021, but has since revisited his approach towards clear backing for Ukraine. That put France at the heart of Western military and political support for Kyiv against Moscow. Macron has also led on many key European discussions, such as devising a new diplomatic format – the European Political Community – and publicly endorsing EU and NATO enlargement.
If that were not enough, France under Macron has for some time been among the foremost European voices speaking in support of improved relations with the global south, and with the Indo-Pacific in particular. Macron recently hosted a summit on a new global financing pact. And this month he welcomed India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, for the traditional military parade on Bastille Day.
Second-term democratic leaders around the world often find comfort in focusing on foreign policy, and the president’s enthusiasm for international action could tempt him down this path.
But this would be a mistake. With four more years in the Elysée, Macron has time to try to build a legacy as the leader who finally tackles France’s very real problems of inequality, violence, and racism – challenges which merit action on their own terms.
Domestic turmoil affects presidents’ ability to conduct foreign policy. It harms a country’s image, undermining a leader’s claim to possess the credentials to set an international agenda. During both the pension reform protests and the latest riots, European media coverage reflected astonishment at France’s apparent resistance to reform, at high levels of violence by both police and protesters, and at a rising number of attacks on elected officials.
As well as stoking the sense of a president losing control, France’s travails spilled over to forestall both King Charles III’s state visit in March and Macron’s own state visit to Germany in June. Ceremonial these may have been, but such showpiece events were intended to help relaunch relations with London and Berlin, which have been strained. And European leaders who share much of Macron’s positioning on central issues of European security have actually rubbed salt in the wound of their ally. In response to recent events, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki posted a tweet that contrasted a France on fire with a Poland at peace, with the strong suggestion that it all came down to immigration.
Macron’s early response to the riots may hinder the rebuilding of his image, as it could put his international agenda, and his party’s electoral interests, on a collision course. His answer so far has been to veer to the right, offering a tough reform of the immigration laws and holding a firm line on the riots. He will be feeling under pressure from the far-right, at a time when 41 per cent of the population say that Marine Le Pen, prominent leader of the French far-right, had the right attitude during the riots. This is significantly more than the 28 per cent who think the same about Macron. Le Pen’s Rassemblement National party is leading in the polls for next year’s European Parliament election, with 26 per cent in support, against 20 per cent for Renaissance, the party of the president.
This context could place considerable pressure on major elements of Macron’s foreign policy agenda, such as his position on EU enlargement, support for Ukraine, and even climate action. The Rassemblement National could try to score points on each of these topics, confronting Macron with difficult choices. Le Pen has declared her opposition “to all EU enlargements” and will exploit the reluctance of the French on the issue. (In 2020, 59 per cent of French people held a negative view of EU enlargement to the Western Balkans.) On Ukraine, a national consensus in support of the embattled country appears to be holding; nevertheless, Le Pen has been consistently critical of economic sanctions on Russia and the delivery of heavy weapons to Kyiv. Her party is also trying to raise the salience of the cost of the climate transition by talking about what they term “punitive ecology”. With increasing political pressure from the right – including in his own camp where ministers fight to become his heir and define their own version of Macronism without Macron – contradictions are becoming more apparent between a progressive, centrist-leaning foreign policy (on climate, on Europe, and on Africa) and an increasingly conservative, centre-right domestic policy.
What does all this mean for Europe? Much remains within Macron’s gift, and his alone – but European leaders should resist any sense of Schadenfreude and the temptation to score easy points at home by exploiting Macron’s domestic troubles. Poland is one particular example of this France-bashing tendency. It is true that Paris and Warsaw differ on European immigration policy, and Morawiecki has long cosied up to Le Pen. But Poland has much to gain from keeping Macron on board to secure the eventual accession of Ukraine to the European Union and NATO, as well as to bolster ambitious French policy on the building up of the European defence industry.
European leaders’ primary goal in their relations with France should be to ensure the country continues to back the EU’s assertive policy vis-à-vis Russia, both in the run-up to and after 2027. They should not take actions that embolden the far-right opposition (both in France and their friends across Europe), whose alignment with Russian political discourse was recently exposed. To others’ annoyance or tacit acceptance, Macron is a useful first fiddle on the transformation of Europe. Unless European leaders are ready to commit the same amount of effort, they had better stick with the devil they know.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.