The end of the French “gloire”?

4 min read

Though President Macron’s suggestion to send NATO soldiers to Ukraine was not completely out of the blue, yet it was so shocking, something difficult to explain, that one cannot help but keep on asking, why?

There are many theories that give some explanation, still it felt that something was missing.

Digging a little deeper, there are several things that might give a better insight into the French president’s head.

The last year (or years) has not been President Macron’s best.

Neither on the home front, nor abroad.

As we have reported it before, French society is not satisfied with their living standards. The French economy is struggling (maybe not on the same level as the German, but it is). About 70 percent of French feel that they had to (and will have to) cut back on spending as inflation roars and energy prices soar. French farmers played a huge role in the EU-wide protests, thus it was largely thanks to their contributions that the EU changed the direction of its environmental policy.

According to the latest polls, Macron’s En Marche! party (and its group in the European Parliament) is going to be the greatest loser of the upcoming elections, being measured at 18 percent. At the same time, the right-wing parties are faring much better: French National Rally is projected to get more than 30 percent of the votes. If it happens, it would be the highest-ever vote for any far-right party in European elections. The other “big” far-right party, Reconquête is set to get 6 percent of the votes.

But domestic issues are only one side of the coin.

The other, the dramatic changes in France’s international positions, are the other.

There, Paris experienced several setbacks lately, both on the political and the military field.

Just like President Macron’s own party, Liberals around the continent are struggling. (One should probably not wonder to much, given that they weren’t able to organize a decent election campaign kick-off event, let alone come up with a meaningful agenda.) If the projections are correct, Renew is set to lose its “kingmaker” status as the third largest group of the European Parliament. 

The creation of the new centre-ground New Europeans association is just one desperate attempt to find a united front for Europe’s ailing liberals, envisioning a “big, happy, united Liberal family”. Let’s say not everybody on the left was happy about the development (think ALDE), even less so, as New Europeans is not a political party. Some see it only as a way for Macron’s party to access millions of euros of EU funding from the European Parliament’s budget. 

The military front looks even worse.

During the last year (two years, maybe), France lost its presence in several African countries in the so-called Françafrique, the Sahel Region. 

It started with the withdrawal from Mali in 2022, following tensions with the ruling junta after the 2020 coup. Another withdrawal, that time from Burkina Faso, followed not much later, for similar reasons. From both places, French forces have been literally expelled.

Next came the Central African Republic, from where France was forced to leave amidst a heavy anti-French campaign (claimed to be a “massive disinformation campaign” by Paris). 

Then, in 2023, Gabon and Niger.

As Seidik Abba, president of the International Center for Reflection for Studies, put it, “it’s been slightly lost on France that Africa has changed and Paris isn’t the only global power available. The former colonies are looking (out) for their interests. They’re not looking at their history with France.”

While President Macron’s predecessors (including François Hollande, Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac and François Mitterrand) all launched new French military operations on various points of Africa, President Macron could not.

To explain things, President Macron (by the way, the first French president born after the end of the colonial era) declared that France has turned the page on postcolonial interventionism. In 2023, he outlined France’s new approach to relationships with African countries, in a memo titled A path to building a new, balanced, reciprocal and responsible relationship.

The aim noble and laudable. Alas, withdrawal means that France had to give up the fight against jihadists in the Sahel Region. Even worse, French troops are being replaced by mercenaries of Russia’s famed Wagner Group. 

Just as the USA has repeatedly warned Paris, the former French colonies are tightening their ties with Russia and Iran. All around the Sahel region, a wave of coups has brought in new, much more militant governments, all quickly breaking ties with their former colonial masters. (Not France is the only country suffering the consequences of this: in 2023, Niger cancelled the military cooperation with Washington, throwing out the app. 1000 strong US military personnel.)

Closer ties with Russia were, to an extent the results of a Russian-initiated disinformation campaign (one that uses movies, troll farms and social media posts, all the usual tools from Russia’s online arsenal), fuelling anti-French sentiments. In fact, a study released by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies found that Russia was the leading source of disinformation in Africa, being responsible for 40 percent of disinformation (a total of 80 documented campaigns) on the continent. 

While there are still places, where France has significant presence, it has lost its strong pillars in the Sahel. 

For the French political elite, the Sahel debacle stroke a sensitive chord. Fears are running high that France is losing its status as a global power. 

“There’s this feeling on the French side that the military presence [in the Sahel region] was one of the last symbols of France’s hard power and, in particular, of the country’s self-perception as a great world power,” said Djenabou Cisse, a researcher for the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research

Mirroring this sentiment, a former French official told to Politico, that “We need to pull our military bases. But there are internal issues, how to make [the withdrawals] acceptable to our armed forces. It means we will no longer have a fighting army”.

The fact that the power-vacuum is filled by Russia (the Russia that should be isolated and in decline after its attack on Ukraine) only ads insult to the injury. 

Based on the above, one can maybe more easily understand, why President Macron (or his advisers) is searching for a new item on his political agenda. One that would fit into his image of a capable and strong leader.

One can only hope that he’d learned it from history that while it always seemed handy to handle a domestic political situation (think diminishing popularity or sensitive corruption issues) by starting (extending) a war at some faraway part of the globe, the boomerang always came back. 

Usually harder and quicker than expected. 

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