France, defense and foreign policy: a look forward

The risks and the threats that France must face are dictated by the new global order. The risk of being involved in a conflict is plausible, since there is an increase in military spending of some countries as well as the new Russian expansionism and the regional destabilization, which are changing the regional and international equilibrium. The risk of crystallization of some political crisis, in particular in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, could lead to a phenomenon of spill over which France fears. These “old” risks and menaces are mixing with the “new” ones, such as piracy, terrorism, cyber attacks (and the related cyber war) and other threats from space.

The general strategy France plans to follow, in the next few years, moves on the binary of protection of national territory and its citizens, nuclear dissuasion and military intervention outside national borders. In this last case, the military involvement of France in foreign countries has been resized. The new political strategy is more diplomatic and is focused on the stabilization of the European neighborhood and the security of the Near East and the Persian Gulf. A new objective is to create solid relations with Asian and Latin American countries in order to reach stability. Another priority is to maintain the equilibrium in the Pacific Ocean, contributing in this way to global peace and stability.

The security and solidity of the European neighborhood is extremely important for the vital development of relations between European countries and France itself. In particular, the persistent tension in the Eastern environs made urgent the implementation of a common foreign policy. France, meanwhile, is showing caution in taking political positions not so distant from the European one, because France is energy dependent of Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia. These partnerships need to be handled with a particular attention. On the other hand, François Hollande has decided to pursue a moderate policy. In doing so, he takes his distances from the position of the extreme right nationalist party of Marine Le Pen and remains firmly anchored to the European approach while keeping autonomy in both the decision-making field and in the operational one. On January 27th, France formalized its participation in the humanitarian mission of the European Union in Ukraine, providing assistance to the civilian population. The relations with Russia were still precarious and needed to be reinforced, in particular in this scenario, which was marked by a mixed and, sometimes, opposite power politics, still dominated by the Russian will to contrast the West.

The Mediterranean area has always played a key role for France, in particular the southern shore which has always been a strategic scenario of considerable interest. The stability of Maghreb is crucial. The risk of power vacuum and the growing role of terrorist organizations linked to al-Qaeda make it difficult to restore the preexisting power, but it would also cause a further wave of protest that would deteriorate the situation and create difficulties for the intervention by foreign powers. French areas of priority interests are Sahel, Mauritania, Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. Preserving its interest in these countries means, not only an increase of the French influence, but also to consolidate a solid relationship with Latin America, which has strong engagements in that zone. France has every interest in not damaging the multilateral relations with Latin America’s countries: in particular, to preserve and develop the relations with Brazil. This relationship was built quite recently, in 2006, thanks to a strategic partnership for which the principal aim is cooperation between these two countries in military, spatial, energetic, economic and educational fields. France will assure that Brazil plays a new role in the international arena; it will sustain the Brazilian candidacy as permanent member in UN Security Council[1].

The crisis in Mali worried France since the beginning. It required France’s external assistance (Operation Barkhane) to sedate the tensions developed between the north and the south of the country, and the internal tensions in Northern Mali. This brought a political and security weakness that enabled the implementation of terrorist groups. The French presence in the country became necessary to continue the fight against terrorism and to stop all forms of traffic to strengthen the security of the country, the rest of Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. On one hand, the French intervention in the country aimed to remove any jihadist’s cell on the territory. On the other hand, it is part of a bigger French project which has the final goal of French supremacy in Africa. This policy points to create a policy of cooperation and development in the continent. There is a special focus on South Africa and Nigeria, which are both emerging regional powers, and French and European interlocutors. Their economic, social and demographic weight can contribute to reinforce the operational capacity of the African Union.

As we all know, the Persian Gulf has a strategic importance not only for the American foreign policy, but also for France. In fact, a conflict in the area could have big repercussions on the Strait of Hormuz that, as a choke point, would be affected. Consequences could lead to a great destabilization and huge economic losses. For this reason, France strengthened the military cooperation with the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Qatar by installing a joint military base in Abu Dhabi. A cooperation agreement has also been signed with Bahrain. In this way, France can defend its economic interests and partners. Meanwhile, Hollande allows France to keep its grandeur and to forge more and more its relations with the United States and the emerging economic powers.

The growing role of China as an international power shed the light on the Sino-French relations in place since 1997. This partnership helps the dialogue with China on political and economic issues. China, as principal actor of the globalization process, became a strong financial partner with France. It is the first in Asia, just followed by Japan and Singapore. Even if the decolonization process has been accomplished, France still continues to play the role of political and maritime power in the Pacific Ocean. Also, in the last few years, the partnership with Australia has grown remarkably (2012). These two countries have put together their own politics in different fields, in particular the Indian Ocean stability which benefits both France both Australia. France, in this way, still continues to play its role as maritime power which is a factor of stability in the area and is trying to gain the trust of India. Australia, on the other hand, knows that France can contribute to the stability of the Pacific Ocean and it can give immediate help and assistance in case of natural disasters.

The 2013 French White Paper on Defense and National Security marks a turning point in the military strategy that France would pursue and develop within 2025. The Armed Forces should be able to respond to the nuclear dissuasion, seen as one of the fundamental part of the national defense strategy; to the protection of the national territory and the civilian population; to the international crisis management, in particular on two/three different scenarios deploying simultaneously up to 6,000-7,000 soldiers, a maritime naval unit and a dozen of fighter aircrafts; to enter in a bigger coercion operation, deploying special forces, up to 2 joint brigades, 45 fighter aircrafts and one aeronaval unit.

It seems to be urgent, according to the new threats, to develop new Special Forces and strong cyber defense capacities, useful to protect the critical infrastructures of the nation. This could be done through autonomy in the production of security systems, strengthening the human resources with competences in cyber defense field and increasing the reliability of the information systems of the state. In this way, it would be easier to recognize where the menace comes from and organize the resiliency of the nation by building up a national response team to respond to the informatics attacks.

The only obstacle that the Defense sector will find is the “Loi of Programmation Militaire” 2014-2019 (LPM) which provides the reduction of military personnel (34,000 units). The problem is that even if threats are increasing and the security of the country is increasingly endangered, the budget is decreasing due to the economic crisis that hit Europe. One of the explanations given by the Ministry of Defense, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was that by lowering the military expenses for the next five years, France will have the second military budget of the EU. In this way, the strategic autonomy of France will be preserved. According to this claim what should emerge is that the military operations in which the French Armed Forces participate will be reduced. At the moment there are 7,900 French soldiers engaged in missions abroad.

The latest events in Paris changed the Ministry of Defense’s point of view: Hollande stated that all cuts forecasted by the LPM will be cancelled. Civilian employees will be reduced by 1/3, in particular the ones employed in the administrative department for supports and commands. There will be an increase of 10,000 soldiers deployed for the protection of the territory. This reduction will correspond to an increase in the assumptions of secret services agencies, in particular the ones dealing with counter-terrorism as part of the Counter-Terrorism Plan. What should be hoped is that, even if the LPM will reduce the personnel, the expenses for the research and development, useful to modernize the Armed Forces, will be not. Obviously, we will assist to a slowdown of the modernization and the development of new technologies at the expenses of a sector that became extremely important according to the French foreign policy.

France returned in the NATO military integrated structure in 2009. The conditions that allowed this were highlighted both in the Rapport Védrin and in the 2008 White Paper: France’s freedom of appreciation regarding troop’s participation to NATO interventions; nuclear independence; warranty that any military contingent will be place permanently under NATO command also in peace time. The role of NATO in the foreign and defense policy is fundamental and is mixed with the French position in the EU. It is of great importance to underline that EU and NATO are not enemies, but they are complementary. France’s objective is to start a process of renewal by trying to integrate the basic functions of the two organizations. NATO could protect its own interests and the ones of EU. Moreover, the command position that France has in ACT (Allied Command Transformation) guarantees an active participation to this renewal process. According to this policy, France will be the warrantor of the financial expenses, helping the Alliance to develop the Interoperability Platform. Consequently, it became fundamental to strengthen the role of the European External Action Service (EEAS) as a first step to relaunch the Common Security and Defense Policy of the EU. France proposes to EU countries to ameliorate the utilization of the institutions, sustaining the creation of structures that work for the implementation and the cooperation of the EU. It would not sound strange if in the next few years, France proposes to the EU the European White Paper, to converge its own interests and objectives with the ones of the EU. helping the diminishing of the time for reach a common point of view for a joint policy that could help the survival of the EU itself.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUMSA)

[1] France is a great supporter of the UN Security Council reform, in which it is included the enlargement of the number of permanent seats of the Council itself. Among the other countries that enjoy the French support there are also India, Japan and Portugal.

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