Emmanuel Macron’s Hundred Days: Continuity or Change in French Security Policy?

August 16, 2017
Emmanuel Macron’s Hundred Days: Continuity or Change in French Security Policy?
Christopher Griffin
Christopher Griffin Non-Resident Fellow Strategic Studies and Counterinsurgency

French President Emmanuel Macron, elected on 7 May 2017, came into office with little experience in foreign policy or military affairs. As his political movement, La République en Marche, claimed to be neither on the right nor on the left of French politics, it was unclear at the time of his election as to whether or not the new president would change the course of French security policy. Former President François Hollande, despite his negative ratings at home, left office having established a more robust security apparatus to fight against terrorism at home and for extensive military operations to combat terrorist groups abroad. Macron’s Administration has also been faced with terrorist attacks, most directed toward the police and the military. This essay will look at Macron’s current record in three areas of French security policy: overseas intervention, counter-terrorism in France and civil-military relations.

French Military Interventions in the Sahel and in Syria under Macron

France is a country that punches well above its weight in international military interventions, as it is currently running large military operations in West Africa and in Syria/Iraq against Daesh.

While it was noted little at the time, one of Macron’s first actions in the initial week of his presidency was to visit French soldiers fighting in Mali. Macron had promised during his campaign that one of his first actions would be to visit French soldiers in the field. In a country where civilian administrations have tried to keep the military at arms-length since the multiple coup attempts during the independence war in Algeria (1954-1962), this was a significant show of support for French troops. French soldiers are present in the Sahel region of Africa (primarily Mali, Niger, Mauritania and Burkina Faso) in Operation Barkhane, an ongoing campaign since 2014 to destroy the jihadist groups in the region. The main target is Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its numerous affiliates, but the French Army also provides support for the ongoing coalition operations against Boko Haram in Nigeria.

Macron’s open support for Operation Barkhane is clearly in line with President Hollande’s policy in the region. He also has begun working closely with the G5 Sahel. The G5 Sahel is an international organization created in Nouakchott, Mauritania in December 2014, and is primarily a military alliance between Mauritania, Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso and Chad to fight terrorism in the region. France is not an official member, but has a significant leadership and support role in the organization. Hollande made aid to the leaders of the G5 Sahel a priority for France in Africa. The French Foreign Ministry reported to the French Senate on 2 March 2017 that the G5 Sahel was the way forward to strengthen African countries’ capacities to fight terrorism. The G5 Sahel’s project to create an international force against terrorism was also praised highly by the French Government. On 2 July, Macron returned to Mali as the guest of honor for the G5 Sahel Summit meeting at Bamako. He promised eight million euros to help build the new anti-terrorism force as well as 70 tactical vehicles. The condition for French aid was that the African countries move quickly to establish the force by the end of August. Germany also contributed significantly to the project. In Macron’s speech, he told the five leaders that it would be up to them ‘to convince [the international community] that the G5 could be effective, while respecting humanitarian conventions,’ and that the countries in question would need to implement ‘institutional reforms and make efforts toward better governance.’

While Macron’s policy toward intervention in the Sahel has largely been consistent with that of his predecessor, his comments on Syria have been less so. Macron was criticized in France in early July for not making the departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a priority for the French intervention. Macron, however, restated his position on 13 July in a joint press conference with visiting U.S. President Donald Trump. Macron said:

            “We have in effect changed French doctrine in Syria … our principal objective is the

eradication of the terrorists, all the terrorist groups regardless of their beliefs. Our will is to create a durable, inclusive political solution, and in that context, I will not make the departure or removal of Bashar al-Assad a necessary condition for success in France’s intervention.”

Macron’s strategy for Syria is not entirely new, as in March 2017, the Hollande administration already indicated that it would not push for the departure of Assad. This was a change from Hollande’s previous policies aimed at removing Assad in 2013, and reflects the interest of the French Government in cooperating closely with the Trump administration, which also does not want the removal of Assad, unless chemical weapons are used again.

Cooperation with the U.S. on Syria also marks a major effort by Macron to work with the Trump Administration on security issues. After a rough start at the NATO summit in May, relations between the two presidents seemed to improve with Trump’s visit to France for the French national holiday on 14 July. On 4 August, Trump and Macron discussed ‘how to increase cooperation in Syria and Iraq’ by telephone. As of 10 July 2017, France had carried out 1307 airstrikes in Syria and Iraq since the beginning of operations in 2014. The policy of active intervention and airstrikes in the region is consistent with that of Hollande, while the close cooperation with the Trump Administration seems to be a unique feature of the Macron Administration, even if Hollande was moving in that direction prior to the May elections.

Counter-Terrorism in France

There have been several terrorist attacks and attempts at attacks during Macron’s first hundred days in France. The most serious as of writing occurred on 9 August, when six soldiers were run over by a car in a Parisian suburb. The soldiers were part of Operation Sentinelle, which includes a permanent military presence with regular military patrols in all parts of France (half of the 7000 soldiers are stationed in Paris, however) to fight terrorism, and was launched in January 2015 after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The 9 August attack is part of a longer trend in terrorist attacks in France targeting military and police personnel in particular. Macron responded initially on Twitter, expressing his support for the military personnel involved and congratulating the security services on their arrest of the suspect. It is likely that Daesh is currently attempting to undermine the credibility of the French military and security services in the eyes of the French population by using them as their primary targets.

In his campaign, Macron and his political movement put the emphasis on improving the police. The-then candidate criticized previous President Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012) for firing thousands of policemen and gendarmes and promised to hire more. Macron clearly placed himself in the line of the Hollande administration on this, but says progress was much too slow. His campaign called for the recruitment of 10,000 police and gendarmes up to 2022. Macron also attacked Sarkozy for eliminating the ‘police de proximité’ during the latter’s term as Interior Minister in 2003. A promise of the campaign was to reestablish this system, which is posting certain police officers to areas in difficulty so that those officers could get to know the local population and win their confidence over time. This resembles the counterinsurgency theory ‘rediscovered’ in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and its emphasis on the importance of winning over the ‘hearts and minds’ of the local population is important to note here.

Macron’s campaign also made the point that ‘we will strike terrorists directly in their havens to prevent them from establishing bases in our areas of interest (Africa, Mediterranean, Middle East)’. As mentioned in the previous section, this is a policy carried over from Hollande’s government, most notably in the Sahel. Coupled with this, however, was mention of the need to improve intelligence gathering and institutions in France, especially in the area of cooperation between ministries. A particular emphasis was put on cyber defense against terrorism. A final aim was to better manage the return of fighters from Syria and Iraq into France with small, isolated centers to reintegrate them back into French society.

The center created in June to coordinate intelligence was much smaller than anticipated, likely due to budget restrictions. There are about 20 experts from the different intelligence services, and those services are not enthusiastic about the creation of yet another organization, which is seen as redundant. For Macron, however, it is a way to centralize counter-terrorism decision-making in the French Presidency, which is consistent with the efforts of most of the Presidents of the Fifth Republic in the centralization of foreign and defense policy.

As for international cooperation, Macron has singled out the UK as a key partner in counter-terrorism, which is a somewhat surprising choice given last year’s Brexit vote. The key area of cooperation will be in stopping radicalization via the internet and making internet companies more responsible for the content on their websites. As mentioned above, the increased cooperation between Macron and Trump may also include counter-terrorism, but the extent of this is not yet clear.

In a terrorism-related issue, Macron’s position on the Qatar crisis has been difficult to fathom. France has significant interests in Qatar as well as in one of Qatar’s main adversaries, the United Arab Emirates, where an important French military base is located. Macron met with the leaders of Qatar and Abu Dhabi in June in an effort to ease tensions, but beyond those meetings, the French position remains largely opaque on the issue. The much-remarked arrival of the player Neymar for the Paris Saint-Germain soccer team (owned by Qatar), also poses uncomfortable questions about the influence of the country.

Civil-Military Relations

In July, there was an important crisis in civil-military relations, which is unusual, given the general lack of power of the French Army in politics. On 19 July, the Chef d’Etat-major des armées[1], the top military officer in France, General Pierre de Villiers, resigned from his position. De Villiers had taken up his position under President Hollande in February 2014.

The circumstances of the General’s resignation remain somewhat unclear. What is known is that de Villiers already opposed Macron prior to the election due to possible budget cuts to the armed forces. He stayed in his position, however, following the election.

On 12 July, General de Villiers expressed his opposition to the projected 850 million euros budget cut for the French military in both the Defense Council meeting with the President and later in the day in testimony at the French National Assembly. Some sources claim that de Villiers was extremely angry in the Defense Council meeting and ‘slammed his fist on the table’. The General seems to have thought that by publicly coming out against the measure, he could force the President to renegotiate. This was a severe miscalculation, as Macron, in a speech to the military on 13 July, criticized the opposition to the budget, which was seen by many as a direct attack on General de Villiers. Macron said it was not ‘dignified to extend the debate into the public square’, and that he was the ‘head’ of the Army. De Villiers certainly interpreted this speech as an insult, and resigned on 19 July. He was replaced by General François Lecointre.

Macron has been accused by both politicians and the media of having pushed de Villiers to resign. It was seen by many leaders on both sides of the political spectrum as an abuse of power by the President. Macron’s actions, however, are consistent with the principles and history of the French Fifth Republic. After several attempted coup attempts during the Algerian War, President Charles de Gaulle reduced the French Army by 50% between 1961 and 1969 and removed many of the senior officers involved in the war.[2] The 1958 French constitution had already centralized much of foreign and defense policymaking in the presidency, making the French President the most powerful in that area in the North Atlantic democracies.[3] In this way, Macron’s assertion of executive power over the French military establishment in this case is consistent with de Gaulle’s efforts to limit the army’s power as well as the constitution, something currently overlooked in the French press.

Despite this precedent, Macron’s decision has made him many enemies in the political and defense establishments in France. He attempted to express solidarity with the military at the outset of his term with his visits and the change of the name of the ‘Defense Ministry’ to the ‘Ministry of the Armies’ (Ministère des Armées – the word ‘Armées’ also refers to the individual military services in French).

While Macron has not made sweeping changes to French security policy in his first hundred days, he has moved to centralize foreign and defense policymaking authority in the presidency, even more so than was previously the case. As we have seen above, this is in continuity with his predecessors, de Gaulle and Hollande in particular.

[1] The ‘CEMA’ is the operational commander of all French forces, and responsible directly to the Minister of the Army and the French President. The position is roughly equivalent to the Chief of the Defence Staff in the UK or the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the U.S. The French President also has a personal military advisor, the Chef d’Etat-major particulier (CEMP).

[2] Pierre Messmer, Après tant de batailles…mémoires (Paris: Albin Michel, 1992), 261.

[3] The key source for this assertion and the structure of French foreign policymaking is Marie-Christine Kessler, La Politique étrangère de la France : acteurs et processus (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 1999).