The Europeanisation of French defence policy?

Jean-Pierre Maulny, Deputy Director, French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs

Macron has committed to raising military spending in France. His goal? To increase France’s and the EU’s capacity for ‘strategic autonomy’. What does this mean, and what else should you know about Macron’s defence policy?

Forward! The march, the burden and the desert,

weariness and anger.

~Arthur Rimbaud, “A Season in Hell”

Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term as President of France (following his election in May 2017) began with an event rarely seen since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958: the head of state rebuking his armed forces chief, General de Villiers, prompting the latter to submit his resignation. This was all the more significant as it happened against the backdrop of Bastille Day, 14 July, where the main symbol is the military parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

In the days running up to the national holiday, the Chief of the Defence Staff had sharply criticised defence budget cuts in a closed-door hearing before the National Assembly’s Defence Committee. His remarks were leaked by the press, prompting Macron to reply publicly – in the presence of General de Villiers and a group of military officers set to march in the Bastille Day parade – in the following terms:

“I’ve made commitments. I’m the boss. I can keep the promises I make to our fellow citizens and to the armed forces. And as far as that’s concerned, I don’t need any pressure or commentary[1].”

Thus rebuked in front of his subordinates, the Chief of the Defence Staff would go on to resign a week later. Could it be deduced from this episode that Emmanuel Macron is anti-military and that defence is not the new head of state’s priority?

Macron vs. the armed forces? On the contrary…

Following this initial episode and the 2019 defence budget cuts, President Macron announced the Military Planning Act 2019-2025, providing for a significant increase in military spending in order to reach the target of 2% of GDP by 2025, the goal that NATO members had set for themselves at the United States’ request during the NATO summit in Newport in September 2014.

The objective was twofold. The first goal was to restore the capabilities of the French armed forces, which had been severely stretched by its growing number of operations, both abroad, particularly in Africa and Syria, as well as domestically through Operation Sentinel, which aims to protect those public spaces most vulnerable to terrorist threats. It was also viewed as necessary to be able to launch new weapons programmes designed to upgrade outdated equipment, such as the armoured vehicles used by French soldiers in Africa.

There was growing discontent among military personnel stemming from intensive use as well as the deterioration of military life, in terms of their ability to do their jobs and in their daily lives. There was a danger that the Chief of the Defence Staff would bring this discontent into sharp focus, so the President decided to demonstrate his authority while also showing that he had listened to the armed forces’ demands. Shortly after this crisis at the highest level of the armed forces, a ‘family plan’ was put forward by Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly with a view to improving military life for personnel. Two and a half years after Macron’s election, the objectives behind increasing the defence budget have not been challenged, and that has helped to ease the tension between the government and the armed forces.

While the first objective was to restore trust between the head of state and the French military, Macron’s second defence policy objective pertains directly to French foreign policy and is expressed in two ways.

Since 2017, Emmanuel Macron has made it clear that he wants to strengthen the ‘strategic autonomy’ of both France and the European Union, and develop a European Defence Union. The term ‘European army’ has even been used. This policy derives from two observations.

France’s ‘strategic autonomy’

First, it is no longer as certain as it once was that the United States will continue ensuring Europe’s security. The Americans are asking the Europeans to make a greater effort when it comes to their own defence. This wish, sometimes stated quite vehemently by Donald Trump,[2] had already been expressed by Barack Obama. The new French President believes that a ‘continental drift’ in the transatlantic relationship is an inevitable development that will not stop with the Trump presidency.

From this follows that EU countries must take control of their own security destiny, especially where their interests may differ from those of the United States. We saw this with the Iranian nuclear deal, where the US unilaterally challenged an international agreement that the Europeans deemed positive.

Closer to home, the surprise withdrawal of US troops from Syria triggered a Turkish intervention in northern Syria and the de facto release of ISIS soldiers, with the ensuing risk of a resumption of terrorist activity in Europe and particularly France. Given that situation, Emmanuel Macron views his call for European strategic autonomy as an extension of national strategic autonomy.

The policy of national strategic autonomy was developed during the de Gaulle presidency, culminating in France’s withdrawal from the NATO integrated military command in 1966, thus asserting its independence in matters of foreign and defence policy. This policy continued during the François Mitterrand presidency, while starting to take on more European overtones. It was reflected in a series of initiatives, often within a combined Franco-German structure,[3] to develop a ‘European defence’ within a framework more independent of NATO. The aim was to become less dependent on the United States but without challenging the Atlantic Alliance.

This was the policy expressed when France refused to take part in the Iraq War in 2003 under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, but it was apparently abandoned during the Sarkozy and Hollande presidencies. The goal now is not to split off from the US or NATO, but to provide France with the means and power to assess situations and take action with greater autonomy.

The role of the defence industry in this strategic autonomy

France has long considered the defence industry to be a tool for serving its purposes of strategic autonomy. The policy was developed in the late 1950s, when the United States failed to back Paris after the USSR threatened to use nuclear weapons during the military operation to ‘liberate’ the Suez Canal, which had been nationalised by Egypt’s President Nasser.

During this period, France was also accelerating its own military nuclear programme, and General de Gaulle made this public when he came to power in 1958, with the first nuclear test in 1960. Since then, France has made sure it is able to manufacture all types of weapons, both nuclear and conventional. This policy continued until the end of the Cold War. Today, France is increasingly building cooperation – especially at the European level – into its arms procurement policy.

The strategic defence and national security review, published in October 2017 just after Macron’s election, called European weapons cooperation a preferred means of manufacturing military equipment, with national-level procurement being reserved for nuclear deterrence only. For political reasons, Germany is the preferred partner for armament cooperation, since it is considered the country France can rely on for shoring up the foundations of the EU. This is true in all areas, with defence being just one among many.

This explains France’s commitment to the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS) and Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programmes in cooperation with Germany. It also explains why France supported the European Commission’s proposal to create a European Defence Fund to finance cooperative European armament programmes.

Nonetheless, today France retains its ability to manufacture combat aircraft, battle tanks, anti-submarine frigates and all types of electronic equipment. France has an armament procurement budget of €12.6 billion for 2020.[4] Arms exports represent an average of €8 billion, with the Middle East accounting for 50% of France’s exports, the EU for almost a quarter and Asia for 15%. Less than 10% of French exports go to Africa and Latin America.[5]

And/or: the European Union’s strategic autonomy

The second part of Macron’s policy entails a focus on EU as opposed to national-level procurement, which had been the case from the 1960s to the 1980s. Emmanuel Macron used the term ‘European sovereignty’ in his speech at the Ambassadors’ Conference in August 2019.[6] That term is probably less open to criticism than ‘strategic autonomy’, which some European countries view as belying France’s intention to sideline the US from Europe’s security.

Macron’s aim is for the EU to become a true player on the international stage, and for its foreign and defence policy instruments to be on a par with its economic power, which is not currently the case. Undergirding this is the argument that the European Union is a force for peace and does not seek hegemony. It rather advocates a multilateral vision of the world, not a unilateral vision like Donald Trump’s United States. Accordingly, the EU should assert its common foreign and security policy, both to defend its interests and to be a stabilising factor internationally.

In this context, the term ‘European army’, which was used by Emmanuel Macron during a radio interview on 6 November 2018[7] and again less than a week later by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, seems to be more of an analogy designed to galvanise support for a European defence structure aimed at overcoming national antagonisms, rather than a specific project per se. Indeed, it would be very difficult to implement such a project within the foreseeable future since there are so many practical obstacles.

For this reason, Emmanuel Macron has supported all European initiatives designed to flesh out the European defence policy, particularly the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) and the European Defence Fund (EDF). To that end, he has relied on renewed cooperation with Germany at a time when the United Kingdom has decided to leave the EU. As part of PESCO, the 25 EU countries that are members have signed up to 20 commitments under which they will jointly develop their military capabilities. The EDF, slated to receive a €13 billion appropriation in the next EU budget for 2021-2027, will finance armament projects developed cooperatively by European companies.

The French President has also supported the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), which aims to create a strategic and cooperative culture in the EU in multiple military domains. EI2, whose operating rules were adopted in October 2019, is presented as a “flexible, non-binding forum”[8] that would guarantee equal rights for participating states, including non-EU countries. This would allow the UK to remain involved even after leaving the EU. 

This French initiative has not always been well received. In terms of its timetable, EI2 was launched in September 2017 when the PESCO project was finalised, giving the impression that it was intended to compete with PESCO, a project strongly supported by Germany. Other European countries saw EI2 as competing with NATO, which explains why the EI2 terms of reference make clear that there should be no overlap with other security organisations, such as the EU, NATO, the United Nations and the OSCE.

The Europeanisation of French defence policy

A relative degree of consensus can still be observed among major politicians on defence issues in France. The fault line runs essentially between supporters of sovereignty and pro-Europeans, with supporters of sovereignty on the far right and far left of the political spectrum. Within the main political parties, there is also a relative consensus on maintaining a transatlantic link, but not at the expense of Europe’s security interests.

Criticism of NATO in France is more about the organisation’s tendency toward an increasingly political role, whereas France considers NATO to be primarily a military alliance. This criticism is increasingly apparent when it comes to dealing with the issue of Russia. There is a clear preference for EU leadership, but the official line is not to challenge NATO so as not to scare European partners. This policy has public support: a poll conducted in March 2019 found that 75% of French people were in favour of a common security and defence policy and 62% were in favour of a European army.[9]

There is a certain degree of continuity in France’s defence policy, but with two changes. First, a change in the context: EU countries now have to manage their security more autonomously as the United States gradually steps back. Second, Emmanuel Macron highlights the need to develop European sovereignty, not just French sovereignty.

This is not without some ambiguity, since he might give the impression that France is trying to impose its concept of strategic autonomy at the European level without abandoning strategic autonomy at national level. Time will tell if Macron is able to handle this potential contradiction, working with Germany to develop the concept of European sovereignty while refraining from taking decisions on French defence policy that might contradict his rhetoric.


Jean-Pierre Maulny is Deputy Director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), where he is responsible for research on defence issues, European defence, NATO, the arms industry and arms sales. He heads the ARES Group, a network of European researchers specialising in defence industry issues. Jean-Pierre Maulny is a member of the editorial board of Revue internationale et stratégique.


[1] Speech by Emmanuel Macron at the Hôtel de Brienne (French Ministry of the Armed Forces), 13 July 2017,

[2] “Getting ready to leave for Europe. First meeting – NATO. The U.S. is spending many times more than any other country in order to protect them. Not fair to the U.S. taxpayer.” Tweet by Donald Trump, 10 July 2018.

[3] Creation of the Franco-German Brigade in 1989, the Eurocorps in 1992, and the initiative to include the creation of a common foreign and security policy in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

[4] Budget Bill 2020, defence budget, 30 September 2019,

[5] Report to Parliament on French arms exports in 2019, 4 June 2019,

[6] Speech by French President Emmanuel Macron to the 2019 Ambassadors’ Conference,

[7] An event where Emmanuel Macron was a special guest on Europe 1: summary of the interview, Europe 1, 6 November 2018,

[8] Terms of reference for the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), 20 September 2019.

[9] Poll conducted by Odoxa for IRIS and Le Parisien, Le Parisien, 30 March 2019,