Understanding the Implications of France’s Strategic Review on Defense and National Security

France’s geopolitical environment has dramatically deteriorated over the past few years.

Europe’s migration crisis, the Arab Spring and conflict in Syria and Libya, the creation of Daesh and terrorism, and the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union have all challenged European and French security, as well as threatened European integration and unity. To Europe’s south, in the Sahel, a successful French military intervention in 2013–2014 in Mali (itself a by-product of Libyan instability) helped to counter a growing terrorist threat, but as the death of four U.S. Green Berets in Niger attest, the Sahel is far from a stable environment. To Europe’s East, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its incursion into Eastern Ukraine—coupled with its military presence in Georgia—have been very destabilizing and have necessitated the deployment of four NATO battalions (300 French forces have been deployed to Estonia).

Five months into Emmanuel Macron’s presidency, the Ministry of Defense is adjusting its posture and perspective to the new reality. The aim of the Strategic Review on Defence and National Security (English summary) is to address the most immediate challenges while preserving a clear vision of long-term geopolitical and technological trends. The document updates the 2013 White Book, which outlined five strategic functions of the French military (deterrence, prevention, protection, intervention, anticipation) and paves the way for the 2019–2024 French military procurement programming law. In this case, strategy does inform the budget. However, budgetary constraints remain high amid President Macron’s pledge to reduce the French budget deficit. Acrimonious negotiations over the 2018 defense budget led the French army chief of staff to resign this summer. The 2018 defense budget was finally spared cuts, rising by 1.8 billion euros, although it remains to be seen whether France’s objective to raise the budget by an annual 1.7 billion euros to reach its NATO commitment of spending 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense spending by 2025 is achievable. But the document sets clear guidelines for the future of the French army even though the provision of the military programming law has often slipped due to insufficient funding.

France is challenged by the sense of withdrawal of two key pillars of international security: the United States’ commitment to the security of Europe (which has been shaken by President Donald Trump’s reluctance to reaffirm NATO’s Article 5 security guarantees); and the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (which absorbs a great deal of London’s political and diplomatic efforts at the expense of other projects). The Strategic Review seeks solutions to this contemporary situation and the more wide-ranging need to diversify France’s allies and partners.

Source: French Joint Staff, Ministry of Armed Forces.

France Expects to Preserve its Strategic Autonomy and Freedom of Action

France perceives itself as a global security actor whose influence and interests span the globe. It boasts the world’s largest or second-largest maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ) with more than 6.5 million square miles (11 million square kilometers). Citizens abroad (2.2 million) and defense of international commitments (as a permanent UN Security Council member) also shape France’s definition of its interests. France will be the only nuclear power left in the European Union after Brexit. Because of this role on the UN Security Council, France maintains a robust dialogue with China and Russia on global issues.

However, France is aware of its limited available means. The Strategic Review focuses on preserving France’s strategic autonomy, which is centered on maintaining and updating a credible maritime and air-based nuclear deterrent. Yet France needs more than a defensive posture. In its immediate neighborhood, France must be able to overcome any crisis and maintain superiority over any nonstate actor to protect its citizens and economic interests. France pledges to continue to match any military challenge that could arise from state actors anywhere in the world and to retain its freedom of action, as well as its ability to initiate preemption.

Jihadism Is an Immediate Threat

It is no surprise that the word “terrorism” or its derivative appear 111 times in the document. Salafi jihadism is a “key threat” to France. As France is fighting jihadi groups in the Middle East and in the Sahel, it has been hit by numerous attacks since 2015, a situation that has driven French authorities increasingly to consider homeland security and external defense as a “continuum.” More than 10,000 military personnel are being deployed on national soil, mostly under operation Sentinelle. The country has just passed new legislation that codifies key elements of the state of emergency, which will be lifted on November 1. The minister of defense recently stated on television that it would be “good news” if French jihadists would die in Raqqa.

The fight against terrorist groups, while not a strategic threat per se, will continue to absorb a significant portion of France’s defense resources. France is involved in two major military operations against jihadi groups: Barkhane in the Sahel, and Chammal in Iraq and Syria. Amid pledges to rein in public expenses, France seeks to increase military cooperation with regional actors and consolidate a multinational force (named G5 Sahel) able to restore and maintain order. France also wants its European partners to better share the burden against global terrorism.

New Technologies and Conflict Ambiguity Will Further Degrade the International Security Environment

The Strategic Review describes an increasingly challenging security environment. Structural changes are shifting the power balance, which impacts global stability. North Korea’s behavior is now destabilizing East Asia and increases the risk of regional proliferation, while in the normative domain the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons could weaken the norm created by the Non-Proliferation Treaty. China’s regional military buildup could trigger an arms race in Asia, especially as it refuses to abide by well-established international laws (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea) and norms in the maritime domain. The dissemination of systems with anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities changes the permissive environment in which Western forces have operated since the 1990s. Finally, cyber conflict, electronic warfare, hypervelocity, artificial intelligence, and robots will also affect the strategic balance over the next decades.

Several state actors seek to expand their room for maneuver by blurring the line between peace and conflict. States seeking to become nuclear powers risk creating “nuclear multipolarity,” which undermines the nuclear balance, brings less, not more stability as established nuclear states, such as Russia, violate the Treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) and adopt more aggressive postures, creating a heightened “risk of accidental escalation.” France contends that the competition between major powers extends over all domains of conflict at once, “from the information space, to land, sea and outer space.” At both ends, cyberspace and outer space lack treaties and norms, leaving the door open to ambiguity, deception, and higher risks of confrontation.

France Needs to Ensure Digital Sovereignty in Cyberspace

Unsurprisingly, the cyber and information space emerges as a major area of concern. Like most EU countries, France’s cybersecurity capacity has already been tested. A spate of cyberattacks during the presidential election and the so-called Macron Leaks raised genuine media alarm. Yet the French authorities promptly offered guidelines to address the issue, and local media outlets respected the media blackout rules for election-related content in the last two days of the campaign. Interference efforts, which remain to be clearly attributed, were poorly designed and did not yield any significant effect on public opinion. The cyber-ops media fever quickly broke, paving the way for a more rational, long-term reflection on the issue.

Still, the Strategic Review contends that France could be in a better position. Private companies like Google, Facebook, or Baidu dominate the information space. Experts in data collection and data mining are now “geopolitical actors” whose cooperation is critical to intelligence efforts. While the United States dominates the sector, China is emerging as a formidable challenger. By contrast, deprived of any champion in this domain, Europe remains vulnerable. France adopted a cybersecurity strategy in late 2016, but it is just the beginning to outline what “digital sovereignty” entails, something that the review advocates.

Creating a Shared Strategic Culture in Europe

Following President Macron’s foundational speech on the European Union, the Strategic Review reaffirms a renewed call for European military integration that far exceeds France’s will to project its influence in a multipolar world. Not only does France see its future in Europe, but it truly sees Europe as its future. France’s vision is to create a genuinely “shared strategic culture” in the European Union in which the Union addresses important security challenges at its borders and beyond.

This is reflected in an ironclad French commitment to preserving, protecting, and defending European security. Although France does not extend its nuclear deterrence beyond the requirements of the French state, then-President Francois Hollande’s Istres speech on nuclear deterrence stated that France’s vital interests extend “beyond” its national territory. The country has shown that it takes the EU Lisbon Treaty’s Article 42.7, which pledges assistance to any EU member state undergoing an armed aggression on its territory, very seriously. In November 2015, in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France invoked this article for the first time and obtained additional contributions to the situation in Mali, especially from Germany and the Netherlands.

Strengthening European Defense and Security

More than a decade after its reintegration into NATO’s military command structure, France has become a very active partner in the alliance, which it describes as “a key element” of European security. At the Warsaw and Brussels NATO summits, France decisively and unambiguously reaffirmed its commitment to NATO’s Article 5 and mutual assistance. It participates in NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP), aimed at deterring Russia’s aggressive behavior in the Baltics, and in exercises in the Black Sea region. Yet the Strategic Review displays “doubts” about the current U.S. posture. Confronted with the ebb-and-flow of U.S. attention and commitment to Europe, coexisting alongside an assertive Russia, Europe must take a greater share of the military burden.

France, which will allocate 1.82 percent of its GDP to the defense budget in 2018 and has pledged to reach 2 percent by 2025, encourages other European members to take similar steps. France hails Germany as a “crucial partner” in defense, and it pledges to maintain a “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, in spite of Brexit. Berlin, Paris, and Rome have advocated strengthening EU defense capabilities, and France’s terminology of “strategic autonomy” was adopted by the European Union in its 2016 Global Strategy. As Daniel Keohane puts it, European governments will need “a leap of faith” to endorse France’s most ambitious projects, but the creation of a European Defense Investment Fund aimed at facilitating innovation and cooperation is already a significant step forward.

The Way Ahead: The Challenges of a Full-spectrum Approach

The French Strategic Review responds to the dramatic changes that have affected the international security environment in general, and France in particular, since 2014. Whether its elements will be implemented depends on a series of factors and policy decisions.

First, because the French economy is still recovering and budgetary constraints are significant, France should closely monitor and match potential technological breakthrough in competing countries. The Strategic Review insists that ensuring sustainability is a priority as military operations now have a foreseeable duration of 10 to 15 years. Authorities will do their best to ensure that operations do not consume the entire budget. In the future, innovation efforts will be focused on preserving exclusive sovereignty in key domains across the full spectrum (nuclear deterrence, monitoring and surveillance, missiles, core command, and control elements).

Second, the success of France as a nation increasingly depends on the European Union. As their interests are increasingly intermingled, France cannot let the European project unravel. Hoping to preserve its clout, France is poised to act as leader on the continent, making substantial concessions to partners in the process to secure support for more ambitious proposals, such as the recently proposed European Intervention Initiative (European forces operating jointly and guided by a common doctrine). It will involve a subtle diplomatic game to keep Germany onboard and avoid escalating disagreements with more demanding partners in Central and Eastern Europe.

Third, the European Union is not and cannot be the only horizon of French diplomacy. French territories and interests are scattered around the world. Because France has limited reach, and because the European Union is mostly focused on its geographic neighborhood, France must engage in more strategic partnerships in Africa, the Middle East (United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Kuwait), and beyond (India, Australia, Japan, Brazil). In this regard, from a diplomatic and military standpoint, French territories overseas constitute potential vulnerabilities but also useful platforms for force projection. They must be turned into an asset to create mutually beneficial bonds with leading actors in each region.

Finally, France’s influence depends on its ability to shape and help construct a cooperative international security environment. The French diplomatic network thrives in multilateral institutions, especially at the United Nations. In this regard, the Trump administration’s dismissal of international agreements and institutions such as the United Nations represents a genuine challenge to France’s strategy. Yet France and the United States have an excellent bilateral relationship and a pragmatic interest in promoting each other’s influence—they should continue to coordinate closely and overcome any significant divergence.

Boris Toucas is a visiting fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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