The search for freedom of action: Macron’s speech on nuclear deterrence

The French president reached out to the rest of Europe on Russia, the transatlantic relationship, and European solidarity.  

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On 7 February, just a week after the United Kingdom formally withdrew from the European Union and left France as the bloc’s sole nuclear power, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a long-awaited speech on nuclear deterrence. The speech is a tradition that every president of the Fifth Republic has observed and a milestone in their presidencies. François Hollande gave the last one in Istres, in southern France, just a month after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The pro-European stance Macron adopted as a candidate in the 2017 presidential election, and that he has hammered home in most of his big speeches since then, was the biggest unknown factor in his deterrence speech. Indeed, despite his pro-European stance, a number of his initiatives’ goals were not made clear or even announced to European allies and partners – taking his infamous Economist interview in November 2019 as an example, in which he called for a strategic review of NATO (among other things). 

The president’s deterrence speech presents Europeans with a bold move: an offer of a strategic dialogue on the role of French deterrence in European security with those who are willing to engage in one.

True to the established “Macron method”, the president’s deterrence speech presents Europeans with a bold move: an offer of a strategic dialogue on the role of French deterrence in European security with those who are willing to engage in one, holding out the possibility of association with exercises conducted by French nuclear forces. Moreover, the speech makes clear that the force de frappe (military strike force) still remains a national prerogative, but that France endorses its responsibilities in contributing to the common strategic culture Europeans need to survive in an increasingly disrupted world. This offer differs slightly from recent initiatives in that Macron extends his hands to other Europeans, in the hope that they will decide whether to take him up on it. Political scientist Joseph Henrotin calls this a “real stress test for European defence”.

As usual with Macron, the speech comprehensively lays out his vision of defence and deterrence. It complements a speech he made to an ambassadors’ conference last August, in which he called for Russia to become part of the European security architecture – much to the dismay of his Foreign Ministry.

His diagnosis and prognosis remain the same: the world is being disrupted, Europe’s political and technological balance of power is under threat, and the liberal international order is increasingly weak and no longer shapes global norms. Hence, Europeans have to act together to address collective challenges.

Macron asserts, as he did at the NATO summit last December, that the fight against terrorism continues to be France’s number-one priority. But Paris cannot afford to concentrate solely on this threat, due to the effects of globalisation “on our sovereignty and security”. The world is experiencing a range of profound and complex changes in the strategic, legal, political, and technological realms. Macron insists that – given the huge impact of US-China competition on international relations, and the growing potential for military escalation in various parts of the world – “European security [deserves] more than the comfort of the transatlantic relationship”. In this context, the global crisis of multilateralism affects France’s system of governance and Europe more broadly. Due to the weakness of its security architecture, Europe could be drawn into a conventional or even nuclear arms race.

The most interesting part of Macron’s speech concerns 5G and the development and operation of critical infrastructure. He sees both the opportunities of this technology as a source of innovation and the risks that it will exacerbate great power competition and facilitate “digital authoritarianism” (by helping repressive regimes monitor citizens).

It wouldn’t be the Macron method without a dose of en même temps: despite warnings of the dangers of overreliance on the transatlantic relationship, he makes clear that the solidarity of the alliance is paramount. Furthermore, NATO and European defence are the two pillars of European security, he states. Macron also calls for the renewal of European ambition and audacity in defining their interests – in almost the same language he used at the ambassador’s conference.

It seems that Macron heard some Europeans’ complaints about that speech and the Economist interview. His deterrence speech circles around the issue of “freedom of action” for European countries to strengthen their national sovereignty. This phrase has connotations of not only military action but also the “economic and digital sovereignty” that would help Europeans protect critical infrastructure and establish the regulatory frameworks they need.

He continues to believe that Europeans should be able to protect themselves when required, partly through the use of existing solidarity mechanisms. To that end, he argues – echoing a 1994 French White Paper on defence – that they still need to define what their interests are. The French president also asked Russia to become a constructive actor in European security, clarifying that his call for rapprochement with the country last August was solely about improving stability in Europe. In the same vein, he urges Europeans to put forward an agenda on arms control.

Macron uses the speech to remind his fellow Europeans that French decision-making independence in use of the nuclear deterrent is fully compatible with “the unshakeable solidarity with our Europeans partners”. He reiterates that French nuclear forces play a major role in Europe through their very existence and, as a consequence, have “a genuinely European dimension”.

In all, Macron reaches out to the rest of Europe on Russia, the transatlantic relationship, and European solidarity. The French generally don’t excel at coalition-building – as the lack of European coordination in Macron’s previous initiatives made clear. But these proposals move in the right direction for enhancing European cohesion and developing a common strategic culture. Macron has laid the groundwork for progress in these areas; it now falls to other Europeans to help realise the “freedom of action” he speaks about.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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