French Election Shows Reports of Western Liberal Order’s Demise Were Exaggerated

The dust has yet to settle on the collapse of conventional French politics caused by the results of the first round of the presidential elections on April 23, yet we can already discern the broad features of a Marine Le Pen, or more likely an Emmanuel Macron, foreign policy, especially vis-à-vis the United States and the transatlantic alliance.

One of the sacred cows slaughtered at the altar of the first round was Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth Republic: namely the “presidentialist” constitution that affords the Elysée Palace especially predominant powers in the domaine réservé of foreign and security affairs.

Among the top five presidential candidates, Marine Le Pen, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Benoît Hamon explicitly or implicitly called for a “Sixth Republic” that would restore more power to the people and/or Parliament, including in matters of foreign policy. Macron has been clear that his would be not a “regal,” but a consultative presidency, far from the Gaullist “permanent coup d’etat” that former President François Mitterrand had once decried. Altogether, up to 80 percent of the French electorate just repudiated De Gaulle’s conception of the president’s role.

However, Gaullism still casts a shadow on the French foreign policy debate. Though the political history of Le Pen’s National Front (including the stridently anti-Gaullist outlook of the pieds-noirs forced out of Algeria by “the General”) prevents her from explicitly embracing Gaullism, her platform still reads like a simplistic version of De Gaulle’s positions—which she surely hoped would appeal to disaffected Les Républicains voters.

Thus, Le Pen speaks of “restoring France’s national sovereignty” among a “Europe of Nations.” She would ensure that France secured full “strategic autonomy” (including in defense-industrial matters), backed up by the nuclear force de frappe and a defense budget that (consistent with US President Donald Trump’s wishes) she would raise to 2 percent of GDP by 2018 (3 percent by 2022). Against the alleged Atlanticist drift of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s and President François Hollande’s foreign policies, France would “recover its ability to speak with an independent voice,” within a “multipolar world” that the country could help balance based on “purely realist paradigms,” according to Le Pen’s platform.

Le Pen would also reinstate De Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France from NATO’s integrated military command, reversing Sarkozy’s 2009 decision to normalize the country’s status in this respect.

Contrary to Mélenchon, Le Pen doesn’t commit to removing France from the Atlantic Alliance itself; additionally, in spite of press reports that made her out to be Russian President Vladimir Putin’s puppet, her worldview is certainly not driven by unmitigated anti-Americanism (which would overstep the Gaullist mark), and her platform makes no mention of Russia.

In a word, Le Pen’s transatlantic security policy would perhaps be less iconoclastic than her plans regarding the European Union, migration, and international trade. In any event, the French presidency’s domaine réservé is no longer so potent that a President Le Pen could evade the political and bureaucratic pressures that would immediately set into gear to normalize the more extreme tenets of her platform—beginning with a hostile foreign service, and a French Parliament that, in the wake of the upcoming general elections in June, is bound to force her into a cohabitation with mainstream parties. In other words, Le Pen would surely face the same mutiny of the so-called “deep state” that arguably has defeated her ideological allies in the White House.

In any event, the odds overwhelmingly favor a Macron presidency (most polls suggest that he will win the second round with a 20-point margin).

Though Macron has been described as cosmopolitan (and especially knows much about the United States), his appeal to the French electorate stems primarily from his domestic platform. The recent spike in his name recognition is exclusively due to his short-lived, but iconoclastic tenure as minister of the economy from 2014 to 2016. Macron himself, in other words, is something of a foreign policy tabula rasa.

But his campaign is not about Macron himself. The limits of his En Marche! movement’s political apparatus make it inevitable that he will have to rely on a broad-based coalition of friends and allies in Parliament. Indeed, that is precisely the sort of rassemblement that Macron has called for. In addition, though Macron has promised the emergence of “fresh faces” (of which he is the epitome) among political elites, he also has been careful to surround himself with known quantities such as outgoing Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who might well become his next prime minister.

At the time when infighting in the White House seems to have been resolved in favor of the Trump administration’s own known quantities, i.e. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, a Macron presidency would complete a reassuringly recognizable picture.

Macron has called for a stronger European defense—including an autonomous EU headquarters, although the idea has been contentious for the past eighteen years both in Washington and Brussels. This is based on his assumption that the United States’ security guarantee to Europe is now in doubt. Yet he finds no neo-Gaullist schadenfreude in the Trump administration’s alleged retreat from the world; and he certainly is no anti-NATO insurgent. Instead, the “four circles” of France’s strategy that he describes combine France’s national forces with the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP), NATO, and the United Nations.

Ultimately, Macron’s platform insists that France’s “close partnership with the US and our other allies is beneficial.” He also commits to spending 2 percent of France’s GDP on defense by 2025, per the commitments made at NATO’s Wales summit in 2014. The only caveat that he places on the Atlantic Alliance is that he believes NATO should not expand east, other than possibly in Finland and Sweden.

Lastly, Macron reflects his modernizing outlook when he argues for a foreign policy that will go beyond the nation-state, in favor of what he calls “inclusive multilateralism,” to comprise “subnational governments, the private sector, and civil society.” This, no doubt, would apply to Macron’s climate change policy where Trump’s positions are such that Europe is looking to circumvent the White House and negotiate instead with US states and multinationals. France might now extend the approach to all fields of foreign policy—which means that, for example, the governments of California or New York City, or a Gates Foundation, might soon be greeted with open arms at the Elysée and the Quai d’Orsay. Macron’s foreign policy, in other words, turns out to be less unusual in its substance than its mechanisms.

Despite the Brexit vote and Trump’s election in the United States, the French elections suggests, therefore, that reports of the Western liberal order’s demise might have been exaggerated.

Erwan Lagadec is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.

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Image: A woman walked past posters featuring French presidential candidates—Marine Le Pen of the National Front (left) and Emmanuel Macron of the political movement En Marche!—at a local market in Bethune, France, on April 24. Macron and Le Pen will face each other in a runoff election on May 7. (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)