Emmanuel Macron has completed his first six months in office. The broad strokes of France’s foreign policy under his leadership are already visible. There is a fresh ambition to put France in the first row of global politics, a new style of combining hard-nosed realism with passionate idealism, and a bid for leadership in Europe. As a candidate and now as president, Macron has wanted France to take on the role of a global mediator.

There is no shortage of challenges on the international scene. Running through many of these disputes are growing tensions between Russia and the West. In Europe, in particular, the continuing violence in eastern Ukraine and the status of Crimea, the build-up of both Russian and NATO forces in the Baltic Sea region, and the protracted conflicts in Moldova and the South Caucasus have come to symbolize a new climate of insecurity and tension. 

From the start, Macron has shown his willingness to engage with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose relations with Francois Hollande were tense. Macron has been careful not to appear exclusively pro-American or pro-Russian. Rather, he views French cooperation with both the United States and Russia as instrumental for achieving results in particular areas, such as Ukraine and Syria.

Macron’s refusal to overtly side with either Russia or the United States also stems from the recent diplomatic setbacks incurred in France’s relations with both countries—most notably, the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, as well as the suspected Russian cyberattack on Macron’s own presidential campaign.

More importantly, however, Macron hopes such a mediating strategy will maintain a level of dialogue between Washington and Moscow, thereby not only bringing the Syrian and Ukrainian conflicts closer to resolution, but also stabilizing relations along the new NATO-Russia divide in Europe’s east.

In addition to mediating between Russia and the United States, Macron seeks to alleviate tensions between Russia and Europe. In order to achieve this, he prioritizes what might offer opportunities for better relations with Russia, such as the fight against terrorism, stabilization of the so-called “failed states,” and the regulation of the massive flow of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

In addressing the fight against terrorism, Macron has also sought to revive the notion of a common EU defense plan, so-called PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation)—an idea that, in the past, had been undermined by concerns over funding, the need for unanimous support, and overlapping NATO responsibilities.

Macron’s fight against terrorism is closely linked to his attempts to prevent the emergence of new “failed states,” viewed as incubators of extremism. In Syria, besides increasing France’s military support for the local forces combating ISIS (Operation Chammal), Macron has warned against the use of chemical weapons, and promised sustained access to humanitarian aid. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian admitted that the de-escalation memorandum signed by Russia, Turkey, and Iran was an encouraging first step, but emphasized the need for a more durable political solution.

The crux of Macron’s vision of a restored stability in Syria is represented by two fundamental ideas. First, any political solution will need to guarantee the rights of minorities. Second, and more important, Syria’s current leader Bashar al-Assad can be part of the new equation. This latter position is a radical departure from President Hollande’s staunchly anti-Assad rhetoric. As Macron explained in an interview with the French media, the absence of any alternative leadership offers no other option for reinstating a semblance of governance in Syria. This approach, favored by Le Drian even when he served as Hollande’s defense minister, opens up the possibility of stronger cooperation with Russia in the stabilization of Syria. 

Another “failed state” high up on Macron’s list of security priorities is war-torn Libya. There, Macron has called for a united Libyan army that would include the eastern militia commander General Haftar, who is also backed by Moscow, to combat Islamist militants. Stability in Libya would help control the massive flows of refugees from North Africa entering the EU—another major priority of Macron’s foreign policy.

As U.S. President Donald Trump has refused to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 landmark nuclear deal, Macron has announced plans to visit Iran. Putin, who actually traveled to Tehran in November 2017, gave Macron a call after his visit.

No other issue is more important for alleviating tensions between Europe and Russia than Ukraine. Macron has duly accused Russia of having annexed Crimea and approved the renewal of the EU’s sanctions against Russia. At the same time, however, the French president has shown real interest in working with Moscow to stabilize the situation in the Donbas, with the ultimate aim of gradually easing the sanctions. In particular, Macron has agreed with Putin to revive negotiations within the “Normandy format,” a diplomatic framework that brings together France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine.

Although Macron believes that it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the February 2015 Minsk accords and still thinks that they represent the best possible road to a resolution of the conflict, he wishes to change the approach to dealing with the crisis. In Macron’s view, rather than debating the principles underlying the Minsk accords, one should focus on their daily implementation.

Also, to make discussions under the “Normandy format” more productive, Macron has suggested providing detailed plans on the pullback of opposing forces from the line of contact, increased monitoring by international observers, and improvement of the humanitarian and prisoner situation. True to form, Macron has consulted all of his counterparts: German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, and President Putin. 

Emmanuel Macron’s foreign policy initiatives have been refreshing. He has certainly been able to raise France’s profile in global affairs, including in European security matters and relations with Russia. With Chancellor Merkel visibly weakened as a result of the recent Bundestag elections, President Macron has been free to take the lead in managing Europe’s difficult relations with Russia. His announced participation in the St. Petersburg Economic Forum in May 2018 can signal the resumption of full-scale dialogue between the estranged former partners, which might bring better understanding of the existing political differences between Europe and Russia, while allowing for expanded commercial and cultural contacts between them.

This material is a part of “Minimizing the Risk of an East-West Collision: Practical Ideas on European Security” project, supported by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

  • Charlotte Desprat