French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China and the controversial interviews he gave after it have rattled many in the West. During that visit, Macron seemed totally taken in by the faux shows of adulation put on for his benefit by the Chinese Communist Party. He came away from the trip promoting a reciprocal dynamic between France and China, one based on “peace, stability, and prosperity.” Macron discussed several important geopolitical issues with Xi Jinping, including Ukraine and Taiwan; in the first case, he hoped Xi could lead a peace process, and in the second, he claimed that Taiwan was not a key European strategic interest. Immediately upon Macron’s departure from China, Beijing put the lie to its benign posture by conducting a multi-day military exercise in which it fully encircled and simulated strikes on Taiwan.
One of the primary takeaways from Macron’s visit and his subsequent interviews is his promotion of strategic autonomy. In his post-visit interview, Macron stated that he had already “won the ideological battle on [European] strategic autonomy,” and that the concept was enthusiastically embraced by the Chinese. The concept of “strategic autonomy” is the French President’s geopolitical catchphrase; he has been pushing the idea alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for years now. In short, Macron hopes to elevate the EU – led by France, now the only nuclear-armed member after Brexit – into a geostrategic power that can operate independently in the international arena without undue outside influence. He sees France as the indispensable nation in ensuring that the EU is not a “vassal” of the United States, instead becoming a third bloc in the Great Power competition between the U.S. and China.
This search for strategic autonomy is not a novelty in French geopolitics but has been around for the past two centuries. In part, it is a response to the destruction of France as the primary European power after Waterloo, but it also has deeper roots in the French vision of itself as a truly unique nation. Since 1815, this quest has been quixotic at best, mostly either backfiring spectacularly or playing into the hands of the nation’s strategic rivals.
Before Napoleon’s final defeat, France was one of the most strategically autonomous countries in all of Europe, charting its own path and exerting power since at least the 17th century. It intervened against its fellow Catholic powers in the Thirty Years’ War; Louis XIV sought to forcibly reorient the map of Europe towards Versailles; his successor carried out the Diplomatic Revolution of 1756 in which France totally remade the European alliance structure; the French Revolutionaries wished to annihilate monarchy and reshape European politics in a Jacobin mold; Napoleon I succeeded in nearly all those ambitions, marching to Moscow before fate caught up with him. This strategic autonomy was a point of national pride, and its loss was devastating to French morale. Ever since, the nation has strived to recapture this glory, despite being overshadowed by other powers. The attempts at reclaiming this national inheritance have been less than successful.
The first figure who tried to reclaim the glory of France on the international stage was the founder of the Second French Empire, Napoleon III. He was the nephew of the Corsican military genius and styled his regime as a conscious continuation of his uncle’s. Unfortunately for France, Napoleon III was a low-quality knockoff of the genuine article. His imperial policy, which reflected the emperor’s famously mercurial temperament, was replete with massive blunders and overestimation of French power. The Empire claimed the exclusive right to protect Christian sites in the Holy Land – and thus the prime place in Christendom – something already claimed by Russia. This led to the Crimean War, a conflict in which France needed British assistance to eke out a pyrrhic victory. Napoleon also invaded Mexico, founding a short-lived imperial state under the aegis of Maximilian I, an heir to the Habsburg dynasty. French involvement in Mexico ended in total failure, with the collapse of the state and execution of Maximilian just a few years later.
After Mexico, Napoleon kept his aims closer to home but did not change his aggressive policy. He attempted to control the succession to the Spanish Crown, arguing for military intervention if his favored candidate was not appointed. Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck used this approach to his advantage, goading Napoleon into starting the Franco-Prussian War. In that conflict, Napoleon himself was captured on the battlefield of Sedan, France lost Alsace and Lorraine for nearly half a century, and Paris was taken over by communist revolutionaries. The push for a strategically autonomous France ended in a German march through the streets of the French capital.
The French Third Republic, the government which replaced the Second Empire, repudiated much of Napoleon III’s governance but kept his goal of reviving the strategic autonomy which died at Waterloo. This renewed French confidence and esprit de corps would rationally be directed at its neighbor Germany, which had just defeated it and annexed its sovereign territory. Bismarck knew this and played the Republic just as well as he had the Empire. The German chancellor promoted French colonialist politicians like Jules Ferry, so as to direct the French desire for prestige and expansion overseas. This had the side benefit of entangling France with Britain, freeing up Germany to consolidate its power. The French got the worse of this trade, failing to gain the colonial empire it desired and losing out on regional primacy to the British in two main imperial theaters: Africa and the Indo-Pacific. Eventually, the Third Republic gave up the ghost and assented to an entente with the British that solidified France’s second-place world status. This time, the trade worked out for France, as in exchange for strategic autonomy it received the aid of the world’s dominant power when Germany invaded in 1914.
In the post-World War II era, the desire for strategic autonomy resurfaced. The nation, led by the iconoclastic Charles de Gaulle, saw a chance to shape its own destiny and regain its freedom of action on the global stage. De Gaulle was loath to accept the reality of American hegemony in the post-war West and the fact that the world was dividing into hard blocs. Much of his foreign policy can be understood through this lens, especially his push for a French nuclear weapons program and his desire to have military autonomy outside of the US-led NATO structure. Many French actions fit this paradigm: the military gambit turned fiasco at Suez in 1956, France’s doubling down on Indochina and subsequent ejection from the country, and, most notably, de Gaulle’s withdrawal of France from NATO’s integrated military command in 1966. These attempts at strategic autonomy were not successful in terms of French interests – it lost its empire and its major influence in NATO, while boosting Soviet interests across the world.
Now, President Macron is taking up the torch of strategic autonomy and is already looking far more like Napoleon III than Napoleon I. His trip to China has lent this comparison even more credibility, with Xi playing the Bismarck to Macron’s Napoleon III. France’s desire for autonomy has led it to adopt a posture that plays directly into the interests of the Chinese Communist Party. By undermining the unified determination of the West to counter unprovoked Chinese aggression on Taiwan, he is hastening the attempt at conquest which he seeks to avoid. Deterrence relies on resolve and unity of purpose; Macron has seriously damaged both.
Since 1815, France has repeatedly failed to achieve the strategic autonomy it desires. It is beyond time to leave the past behind. Macron must choose whether France will be a powerful player in a Western bloc led by the U.S. or whether it will continue its doomed attempt at role-playing as a Great Power. One of those choices advances French interests, but it may be a bitter pill to swallow for French national pride. C’est la vie.