For France, this week’s geopolitical drama — the failed sale of submarines to Australia and the outrageous response to the United States’ breaking of the deal — sums up a problem the once-powerful nation has struggled with for decades: how to let itself count as an independent power, which French leaders see as essential, while preserving the alliances they know France relies on.
Reconciling that dilemma between independence and dependence has inspired and tainted French strategy since World War II subjected most of Europe to foreign powers.
While Americans sometimes see French waywardness as animated by vanity or a desire to reclaim long-lost imperial pride, French leaders are well aware that they are leading a medium-sized power in a world dominated by larger ones.
The planned submarine sale follows a long series of steps calibrated to project French power, leaving the country able to steer its own destiny while joining its allies whose help Paris knows it needs, paradoxically. to stand on its own two feet.
But the loss of the contract emphasized the difficulty of achieving both. The same was true of France’s response. The recall of its ambassador to Washington was meant to show that it was not afraid to stand up even to allies. At the same time, in seeking European support against the alleged American betrayal, Paris showed that it feels compelled to seek outside support in this too.
“For the French, independence has always meant autonomy,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
“But that has never been 100 percent independent. The bottom line is that it’s 99 percent independent,” he said, but added that this poses “fundamental tensions” that can’t be resolved so much as managed.
The history behind why French leaders feel they should try anyway, and the challenges they’ve faced since then, both underscore why this week’s events infuriated Paris.
An independent streak
The war and its aftermath, which divided Europe between American and Soviet forces and Washington put new pressure on its now subordinate allies, many of whom it also militarily occupied, convinced the French that accepting a future as one of many in an American-led alliance, as the British and West Germans had done, would mean submission.
The advent of the nuclear age, with its threat of utter destruction, convinced the French that they must secure their own way in the world, even if it sometimes disturbed the allies whose help they needed to do it.
Charles de Gaulle, president from 1959 to 1969, sought Washington’s help in uniting Western Europe against the Soviets. But he also undermined US influence at every turn, to better assert French leadership instead.
He oversaw France’s emergence as a nuclear power, ejecting US troops from France, withdrew from NATO and tried to persuade West Germany to cut its ties with that same alliance.
“The fact that he did this while expecting continued protection from the NATO alliance only made the Americans worse,” said historian John Lewis Gaddis. wrote.
In 1967, De Gaulle commissioned a report examining a nuclear strategy called “defense in all directions” capable of “intervening anywhere in the world”. It was a bold statement of global ambition, built on an entirely homemade deterrent.
But in practice, France’s nuclear stance was simultaneously “national” – designed to deter the Soviets without outside help – and reluctantly “recognized, albeit tacitly, the relationship between the criticized American deterrent and the French,” the scholar Philip H. Gordon wrote.
Nuclear attacks were intended to support and, if necessary, enforce an anticipated US intervention through escalation — a fitting summary of France’s ambition to simultaneously support, act, and coerce the Americans.
It is a formulation that is more complex than independence: it recognizes and even abuses the dependence on the United States. And it’s a pattern that France has followed ever since, with no less a sense of existential commitment, during this week’s events.
Now that the era of nuclear stalemate has faded, France has moved to more contemporary instruments. It uses its seat of the United Nations Security Council to act as a diplomatic counterpart to the great powers. It sends peacekeepers to global hotspots. And it sells advanced weapons abroad.
“That independent trait, the Gaulist trait that led to nuclear independence, is also true in the commercial realm,” said Vipin Narang, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Their fingerprints were of concern everywhere in every country during the Cold War,” he added, referring to new nuclear states such as Israel and India.
Arms exports give France a direct military relationship with strategically placed states and independent powers, especially in Asia, including India and Vietnam.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has sought a more supportive approach than De Gaulle. Though he signed an EU trade deal with China, he has further joined the US-led push to contain it, exerting pressure within Europe and supplying arms to like-minded countries abroad. .
“From our point of view, with the submarine contract, we have sought to develop an autonomous, but not decoupled, contribution to security in the Indo-Pacific,” said Mr Tertrais. “It was intended as a positive contribution by two medium powers to a common agenda.”
But Mr Macron has maintained that independent streak, urging, for example, that the European Union… take over regional military duties of Washington-led NATO.
And France has learned that Washington is not above acting independently.
“The French have been ruthless in their arms trade in the past,” Narang said. Although he understood Paris’ anger, he added: “If someone else plays the same game, the French get angry.”
The French ambassador’s withdrawal may seem like a diplomatic tantrum. But it follows the same long-standing strategy. As de Gaulle reasoned, few things show a willingness to defend interests independent of Washington’s like a diplomatic thumb in the eye of the Americans.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the French Foreign Minister, has tried to raise a wider resistance, to tell a French news channel that European nations must unite to defend their collective interests, even against the Americans.
But Mr Macron is struggling so far to strike a big blow against the Americans.
It highlights the challenge in its 21st-century update on Gaullism: cultivating a united Europe that can compete with the US or China. This was to give France, as an informal leader, a vehicle for its ambitions and, for all of Europe, to escape US dominance.
“France’s question is a big one: It wants these countries to switch to seeing France and not the US as their protector,” Ben Judah, an Anglo-French analyst with the Atlantic Council, tweeted.
And this mission is complicated by the same independent streak and global ambitions that motivate her in the first place. French insistence on approaching Russia as a fellow superpower and member of the UN Security Council, for example, confuses European states and undermines hopes for unity.
“That tension is very difficult to resolve,” acknowledged Mr Tertrais. “I’m not sure it can be solved.”
Europe’s so far muted response to French calls for unity, like so many moments in the past week, is a reminder that the contradictions within France’s dependent, but independent, European but global, first-under-peers strategy will inevitably come. erupt.
The struggle to manage these contradictions is not new, for Paris or Washington.
In 1992, the scholar of French politics, Mr Gordon wrote that disputes during the First Gulf War showed “the limits to his alleged independence”.
Both capitals had left with a desire to align more with global affairs, if only because of their shared values and agendas.
But that wouldn’t be possible unless “both sides do their best to reassure the other,” wrote Mr. Gordon, discovering exactly how difficult that can be in his current job as deputy national security adviser at the White House. .