The “Macron Miracle” Could Transform France Into a Global Powerhouse

One month after his stunning victory, and three days before a large parliamentary win for his newly created party ( La République en Marche), Emmanuel Macron, the youngest president of the French Fifth Republic, had every reason to be optimistic. At the Viva Technology conference in Paris in June 2017, he proclaimed the “beginning of a new momentum” in France: “I want France to be a startup nation, a nation that works with and for the startups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a startup.”

Macron’s promise of a new beginning also has extensive foreign-policy implications. France seeks to reinvent itself as a “startup power” that is agile, flexible, creative, and able to play great-power politics while leveraging multilateralism to advance both European and French interests. It hopes to take advantage of the acceleration of history instead of enduring it. The strikes on Syria in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons, along with the United States and the United Kingdom, demonstrate France’s promptness to use force to uphold international norms. French decisiveness should not come as a surprise, as the country’s transformation actually predates Macron—it has worked in the last decade to get rid of historical hindrances and moral rigidity.

Whether the French project will succeed remains to be seen. France’s repositioning occurs as the post–Cold War international order is crumbling. The United States, once a pillar of stability, has become unpredictable. The European Union, plagued with internal disagreements, has yet to achieve significance on the world scene. Nonstate actors and revisionist powers, such as Russia, sow confusion among allies and destabilize the international security architecture. An old power with a varnish of modernity, France itself will keep struggling with internal centrifugal forces (populism, nationalist retrenchment). Yet, Macron’s France seems determined to ride the storm. The challenge is now to infuse the form with substance, build credentials and gain a reputation of reliability among the international community, for startups often die from failing to transform an idea into a working business model.

Five Minutes to Midnight

Jacques Chirac’s 2003 prediction of the rise of a “multipolar world” as France opposed the war in Iraq may have been a bit premature, yet the French president was prescient in anticipating the loss of U.S. hegemony in world affairs. On August 30, 2013, confronted with the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, the world’s sole superpower felt crushed by responsibilities. President Barack Obama decided against strikes, leaving the French government in the lurch. Both 2003 and 2013 served as wake-up calls for France: effective leadership must be backed by power. France was a voice of wisdom only to be rewarded with isolation: European allies were either wary of defying the United States, or resented France for telling them to “ shut up .” Worse, as the French were chasing grandeur at the United Nations, they were losing clout on all fronts.

The early twenty-first century was tough for France, which sunk deeper into la crise. Mass protests stalled legislative reforms, while France’s unemployment flared up after the 2008 crisis, to a high of 10.6 percent in 2015. French public debt kept creeping up to reach 98.1 percent of GDP in 2017. Traditional parties suffered humiliating defeats, starting with Marine Le Pen’s good performance in 2002 and the French public’s resounding “no” to the 2005 referendum on the European constitutional treaty. Unfulfilled promises of equality and a strict interpretation of laïcité—the French principle of secularism—combined to produce an explosive social cocktail, illustrated by the 2005 youth riots in the banlieues and the “Burkini” controversy. Meanwhile Le Pen’s Front National continued gaining momentum through its “de-demonization” campaign. French society suffered from sclerosis, indulging in declinist theories.

On the world stage, France’s star was fading: the French welfare model was deemed uncompetitive and nonreformable, and its unique assimilation model was increasingly viewed as ineffective. France lost eight ranks in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitive Index between 2008 and 2017. By contrast, Germany, the former “sick man of Europe,” became Europe’s leading and most respected voice.

France's most tragic days were still to come. Altogether 245 people have been killed in terror attacks on French soil since 2015, 95 percent of them in three traumatic events (Charlie Hebdo, Paris attacks, Nice), targeting the highest symbols of French society. Although new coordinated attacks have been successfully prevented since 2015, the threat of terrorism is today a constant preoccupation—42 percent of French citizens say that terrorism is in their top three worries.

While France’s decline had been slow and insidious, the unraveling of the world order between 2013 and 2016 seemed unescapable. Violent readjustments came to confirm the shifts in the global power structure. The chemical taboo fell in Syria, adding to proliferation concerns in Iran and North Korea. Revisionist powers used the opportunity to trample upon well-established rules, notably in Crimea and Donbass. Terrorists made territorial gains and attracted foreign fighters. Waves of refugees shook to the core a Europe unable to reconcile its universal values with fears for safety and stability. Nationalist populism gained in all corners of the Western world.

The world’s fragmentation could have precipitated France’s further decline. Yet faced with terrorism and populism, France, to the surprise of many, did not collapse. On the contrary, the shock wave woke the country up. In these times of international volatility and unprecedented security threats, France came to the realization that, in order to recover control over its own fate, it had to rethink its international role.

Let De Gaulle’s France Go

Few would have predicted in 2016 that a French president would soon be hailed as a champion of the international liberal order. The election of Emmanuel Macron, an EU-enthusiastic leader, put a sudden stop to declinist theories and brought hope to pro-Europeans. Though inexperienced on the world stage, he acted as a magnet for international media in search of a new hero. Some even dubbed Macron’s rise a “miracle,” which became a self-fulfilling prophecy as France swiftly climbed to the top of the 2017 Soft Power30 Index.

In fact, France’s former lethargy and the “Macron miracle” are both overhyped, at least on the foreign-policy front. The country of Richelieu had been undergoing a silent revolution to transform itself into a more agile power for a decade already. In 2008, France returned to NATO’s integrated military command structures, a strategic shift that allowed France to sweep away suspicions about its EU defense projects, while mending fences with the United States. When Crimea was annexed, France began the next shift: it cancelled the sale of two Mistral-class assault ships to Russia, bolstered its declaratory nuclear policy, and strengthened its partnership with Estonia, demonstrating that Europe would stand united in front of the Russian challenge.

In another radical move, France scrapped its old diplomatic conceptions of Africa. Faced with emboldened Asian and Middle Eastern powers on the continent, France was forced to revise its patronizing diplomacy. It took a decade to finally abandon la Françafrique, severing unhealthy ties with former African colonies in favor of pragmatic cooperation. Taking advantage of a reformed military apparatus that allowed for more flexible force deployment, it focused on stability efforts in Central Africa and launched a massive effort on regional capacity building, military training, and counterterrorism in the Sahel.

France’s military and diplomatic apparatus has also enjoyed a facelift. The French diplomatic network is already a well-oiled machine, ranking third in the 2017 Lowy Global Diplomacy Index, and Paris is reallocating resources toward Asia. The restructuring allows France to transform flashpoints, such as China’s more assertive stance, into an opportunity to forge stronger bonds with Japan or India and assert its regional presence. Building on a reputation of competence and efficiency in U.S. military circles, thanks to efforts in Afghanistan, Africa, and the Middle East, France is now modernizing its military forces—on course to fulfill the NATO 2 percent pledge by 2025. France has also become more competitive in the defense-exports market and is reviving its doctrinal reflection, with an emphasis on artificial intelligence and cybersecurity. Refurbished soft and hard power tools are ready for use.

The Foundations of a Startup Power

The ingredients were there, but the French needed a talented chef to put them all together. They found an improbable technocrat turned outsider, willing to turn a respectable yet sluggish power into an innovative proposition. With his unique audacity and self-confidence, Emmanuel Macron is transforming France into a “startup power.”

French foreign policy comes in new packaging: a disruptive communication offensive combining innovative techniques and traditional assets. Macron plays on France’s soft power when he invites Donald Trump to the Champs Elysées and Putin to Versailles, overcoming strategic disagreements. Yet France’s unrivaled cultural heritage also serves to smooth otherwise assertive messages. The French president used his joint press conference with Putin to call RT and Sputnik “propaganda agents” for their unfair coverage of the French election, doubling down with a proposed ban on “fausses nouvelles” during electoral campaigns. He trolled the U.S. president with his now famous meme “Make our Planet Great Again.” Macron’s flawless English and flair for theatrical statecraft expands the country’s global influence.

Macron strives hard to create and entertain a network of like-minded investors, including in the European Union. The former Rothschild banker is conscious of the potential of a distressed asset with high upside: Europe is a power multiplier for France, and it can be one for other Europeans, too. As soon as he took power, the French president pushed for economic reforms (creation of a eurozone budget and finance minister), political revitalization (democratic conventions on the future of the European Union, treaty renegotiation) and European defense integration. Macron’s vision is one of a “Europe that protects Europeans” from unfair trade practices outside and from social dumping inside and of a “sovereign Europe” that proudly defends its model on the world stage. The French president made such a forceful push for change in Europe that German political parties felt compelled to answer France’s expectations in their February coalition agreement.

The French foreign policy’s new trademark is agility, combining swift decisionmaking, resolve, and timeliness. Early in Macron’s tenure, France tackled the thorny problem of Libya through an exclusive meditation effort. France surprised when it put Saudi Arabia under pressure to send Saad Hariri back to Lebanon last November. It did not hesitate to circumvent the U.S. government’s skepticism on climate change during the One Planet Summit. Faced with Trump’s pledge to dismantle the Iran nuclear deal, the French adopted a two-pronged strategy: offering to work on the issues of Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional overreach, while playing the role of an intermediary with Teheran. Whenever core interests are at stake, it is better to strike first and then offer a deal.

Flexibility complements agility. A staunch advocate of multilateralism, France is also pragmatic, for it knows that the United Nations is facing an assault of unilateralism and the increasing influence of states with different agendas, such as China. Confronted with this reality, Macron promotes the idea that France should be “mobile and autonomous” by “building ad hoc alliances” and “putting in place new multilateral frameworks.” France will continue to advocate a reform of the UN Security Council and veto power. The French are tenacious in defending existing rules, yet do not hesitate to promote mini-lateral formats to achieve security goals—Normandy format, E3+3, etc. On climate change, France revived its credibility as a bridge between North and South through the success of the 2015 COP21 conference. With its decision to strike Syria on April 14, without a clear UN Security Council mandate, France seeks to send the signal that its commitment to defend well-established international norms can take precedence over its general policy to secure a consensus with the international community, at least when such norms are deemed vital.

Challenges Ahead

Since the promise of startups is based on hypothetical future gains, they are particularly vulnerable to investors’ leaps in faith. France’s accomplishment as a startup power will ultimately depend on its ability to reform, demonstrate resilience, and develop a coherent vision. France’s situation is favorable for lack of contestants among Western democracies. Domestic politics prevents both the United Kingdom and Germany from playing a leadership role in Europe. Trump’s America is all too happy to pass the torch. By contrast, Macron enjoys a wide mandate for shaking up institutions and habits, and foreign policy is traditionally a consensual topic.

Sustaining the momentum might prove tricky if France balks at implementing its own recommendations. Macron will be judged on his pledge to bring new dynamism to the labor market, launch modernization reforms, and attract foreign entrepreneurs. France is still struggling with its own demons. The internal terrorist threat remains high (28 attempts and 3 successful attacks in 2017), military forces run the risk of overstretch, and French society is still on edge with regard to identity and religion. If the “Macron miracle” fails internally, it will be short-lived abroad.

France’s project is more likely to succeed if embedded in a larger incubator, building on collective innovation and outreach. Europe is France’s startup hive. The United Kingdom must exit the Union in an orderly fashion, and Germany needs to deliver on EU reforms. European divisions will have to be healed by protecting European values without being arrogant, especially with Poland and Hungary. France might have a hard time preserving its foreign-policy agility in the context of an EU integrated framework. France will also need to help strengthen the African incubator, the world’s talent pool for the next century. It is dedicating efforts to promoting the G5 Sahel organization aimed at building stability under a regional leadership.

All things considered, the biggest risk France faces in the short run is hubris, as the Western night makes its light appear even brighter. Unafraid to use force to fight terrorist groups or uphold international norms, France could antagonize some European partners or lose its special voice as a bridge to non-Western nations. For the time being, the French startup is still only bound to deliver proof of concept rather than evidence of results. Macron’s ambitions are larger than life: he hopes to restructure European politics before 2019, and he posits France as a global actor for innovative solutions for peace with the creation of the future Paris Peace Forum. France is busy coming back.

(This is an abbreviated version of an essay that originally appeared in the April 19, 2018, issue of the National Interest. It is published here with permission.)

Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Celia Belin is a visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and a scholar with the Centre Thucydide in Paris.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Boris Toucas

Visiting Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution