‘But at the Same Time…’: Emmanuel Macron and Ukraine

Main Image Credit Middle way: French President Emmanuel Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a joint press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine on 16 June 2022. Image: Abaca Press / Alamy

The French leader often uses the phrase ‘at the same time’ to remind people that while Ukraine deserves international support, lines of communication with Russia must be preserved. There is a logic behind this much-criticised approach.

The French posture on the war in Ukraine has been heavily criticised since the Russian invasion started in February. President Emmanuel Macron's oft-stated desire to maintain a dialogue with Vladimir Putin has irritated many of France’s European partners, and some commentators have suggested that Russia itself views this desire for dialogue as a French weakness.

Then there was the French president’s call ‘not to humiliate Russia’, which was perceived as encouraging the international community to accept Russia’s occupation of Ukrainian territory as a fait accompli, at a time when Washington and London were reiterating their determination to severely punish Russia’s aggression. And by estimating – as the French president did in his Europe Day speech to the European Parliament on 9 May – that Kyiv's accession to the EU would take ‘decades’, the Elysée was again accused of betraying the victim of the aggression.

This sequence of events revived the tensions encountered a few years earlier when Macron advocated a renewed dialogue with Moscow, and when he diagnosed NATO as ‘brain dead’.

And then, perceived public communication failures – such as the publicity given by Macron to his telephone conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or his display of an apparently far too intense physical closeness to the Ukrainian leader in Kyiv recently – have not helped either.

But does Macron have good reasons for choosing this posture? Are there better approaches he could have taken? And what will happen now, as the French president has just lost his absolute legislative majority in the National Assembly?

Seeing the Crisis Through Macron’s Eyes

Back in 2017 when he first ran for the presidency, Macron liked to use the expression ‘at the same time’, a qualifier which summed up his desire to reconcile opposites, to speak to all interlocutors, and to choose a middle way between the left and right in politics, a way marked by compromise. Such an approach is not exactly new; it was all the rage during the 1990s. It was called the ‘Jospin method’ in France after Lionel Jospin, the prime minister at the time, or the ‘Third Way’ in Tony Blair’s UK.

The current French president sees no incongruity in supporting Ukraine, and ‘at the same time’ continuing to talk with Moscow. Nor does he see any contradiction between wishing for a Russian military defeat on Ukrainian soil, and ‘at the same time’ wanting to avoid any direct conflict between NATO or the EU and Russia. And he believes it is possible to strengthen ties between the EU and Kyiv, while also underlining the obstacles to a rapid accession to full EU membership for Ukraine.

Macron is not the first French leader to believe that realism in foreign policy requires telling allies certain truths, however uncomfortable these may be

The Elysée believes that the need to continue dialogue with the adversary in order to avoid any misunderstanding or fatal escalatory spiral, as well as the imperative to provide a way out for all the protagonists in order to facilitate a future solution, are the essential ingredients for any negotiation. No diplomacy textbook would say otherwise.

And as viewed from Paris, one is struck by Africa’s hesitation, the Arab world’s silence, and the speeches in support of the Kremlin elsewhere in the Global South. So, if the West is united in its determination to support Ukraine, it is very much alone. The view from the French presidency is that we should avoid another iteration of ‘the West against the rest’, and instead show ourselves to be attentive to the nuances of others in order to build new global coalitions.

Finally, Macron is not the first French leader to believe that realism in foreign policy requires telling allies certain truths, however uncomfortable these may be. General de Gaulle reminded the Americans, in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh in 1966, that there could be no military solution in Vietnam. Jacques Chirac warned Washington in 2003 that invading Iraq would set the Middle East on fire. In a similar vein, Macron believes that Russia will remain a nuclear power at the gates of Europe, and needs to be engaged through dialogue, however long the current Ukraine war lasts. And he also believes that the sympathy and support Ukraine deserves does not eliminate the need to point out the extreme difficulty of considering a rapid accession to EU membership for a country currently at war and largely ruined.

The logic behind this approach may come across as brutal. But is it wrong?

Debate and Alternatives

Of course, the brickbats against the French posture continue.

The pejorative term ‘macroner’ has come into use in some Central European countries, signifying a diplomatic initiative of no purpose. The French leader is accused of weakening support for key European partners such as Poland and the Baltic states, and of betraying weakness to authoritarian regimes, both in Moscow today and perhaps Beijing in the future.

France is mistaken – critics say – in thinking that it will obtain concessions from Russia through dialogue rather than a display of force. Moreover, there is the criticism that Macron’s ‘at the same time’ is meaningless when it comes to a character like Putin; with dictators, it is said, we do not argue. ‘Remember Munich’, say the critics.

But as seen from Paris, these arguments are fallacious. If France, which holds the current rotating presidency of the EU, had refused any dialogue with Moscow, it would have failed in its duty as coordinator of the 27 member states, some of which – such as Hungary – have a different position, or have been constrained in their approach to Russia by economic or energy difficulties, such as Germany.

The same Macron criticised for being too accommodating to Russia will now have to counter expressions of support for Moscow from some of the newly elected pro-Russian legislators in the National Assembly

French officials point out that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, it was the maintenance of dialogue, coupled with firmness, that avoided the worst: just recall the Cuban crisis in 1962. Moreover, those in Paris ask, what results have been produced by adopting radical maximalist postures, such as those of the US neo-conservatives in Iraq?

And Now?

In reality, the French attitude is not that different from the stance of the Biden administration, which also wishes to support Ukraine while remaining adamant that it does not want a war with Russia. And by going to Kyiv on 16 June accompanied by the German chancellor, the Italian prime minister and the Romanian president, Macron has turned the page on past misunderstandings.

But the French political landscape is changing. As of 1 July, France will no longer hold the EU presidency. This will not prevent it from maintaining a role in possible ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategies towards Moscow, stances which collective organisations like the EU and NATO allow. But the French president will no longer be responsible for reconciling all points of view in the EU; nor can he act as a spokesperson for the group.

More significantly, Macron’s loss of his overall majority in the National Assembly could lead to a loss of political authority on the international stage, and force him to devote more time to domestic issues, managing difficult parliamentary debates, and calming future domestic social tensions.

The two political forces that emerged stronger from the recent ballot – the new left-wing union NUPES and the far-right National Rally, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen, respectively – are notoriously favourable to Putin’s Russia. What will be their attitude in the parliamentary committees on foreign affairs and in the broader public debate? Catherine Colonna, the minister of foreign affairs, was not a candidate in these elections, and the minister of European affairs, Clément Beaune, only narrowly managed to get elected; the fate of the current government is uncertain.

Macron probably has no regrets about his Ukraine strategy. Under the French presidency, the EU has remained united, the conflict has not turned to Russia's advantage, and dialogue with the various parties continues. Yes, some allies may have been annoyed, but as Macron sees it, this is inevitable between friends. And, paradoxically, the same Macron criticised for being too accommodating to Russia will now have to counter expressions of support for Moscow from some of those newly elected pro-Russian legislators in the National Assembly in Paris.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Frédéric Charillon

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