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Macron’s Gaullist trip to Beijing will not relieve his domestic headaches

Having pushed through a law that raised the retirement age from 62 to 64, and faced with retaliatory trade union strikes and street riots the likes of which that Paris has not seen since May 1968, French President Emmanuel Macron found it convenient to leave his country to visit  Beijing this week, accompanied by EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen. While Von der Leyen voiced her concerns about Chinese trade practices and the invasion of Ukraine, Macron’s agenda was rather different. It was both to promote Franco-Chinese economic cooperation and to reassert yet again his neo-Gaullist theme of European “strategic autonomy,” led, of course, by France. 

Indeed, whereas China’s defense minister refused to take a call from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Macron and Xi’s statement promised to “deepen dialogue between the Southern Theater of the People’s Liberation Army of China and the Command of French forces in the Asia-Pacific Zone (ALPACI), in order to strengthen mutual understanding of regional and international security issues.”

Having received a warm Chinese reception, and generally downplayed the war in Ukraine, Macron distanced himself from American policy on Taiwan. He told several journalists that Europe faces the risk that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.” He went on, “Do we have an interest in speeding up on the subject of Taiwan? No. The worst of things would be to think that we Europeans must be followers on this subject and adapt ourselves to an American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction.” Coming at a time when China was initiating blockade exercises in response to Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen’s visit to the United States, Macron’s statements were especially incendiary, but not surprising.

Beginning with Charles de Gaulle himself, French presidents of all political stripes have, to a greater or lesser extent, articulated the view that France should not, in Macron’s words, become a “vassal” of the United States. In 1963, de Gaulle withdrew its Atlantic and Channel fleets from NATO’s command. On March 10, 1966, de Gaulle went even further. He withdrew France from the alliance’s integrated military command and expelled both NATO, which had been headquartered in Paris, and some 50,000 American troops from French territory.

The following year, and in conjunction with de Gaulle’s decision, General Charles Ailleret, the French chief of general staff, announced that France had altered its strategic nuclear doctrine. Henceforth it would maintain the posture of “tous azimuts,” or “all vectors,” independent of the American strategic deterrent and allowing it the option to avoid involvement in a superpower nuclear confrontation. Indeed, already in 1966, France had established a “hotline” with Moscow; it was only six years later that the U.S. and Russia established a similar line. Though France never left NATO and maintained arrangements to cooperate with NATO in wartime, Paris has never abandoned its strategic nuclear posture, even after it rejoined NATO’s integrated military command in 2009.

De Gaulle sought to draw the rest of Western Europe with him, arguing that it should resist American political, economic and military domination. He was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War. He blocked British membership in the European Economic Community, in no small part because he felt that London was too closely aligned with the United States. He even went so far as to declare “Vive le Quebec Libre” at a July 1967 rally in Montreal, much to the consternation of both Ottawa and Washington.

De Gaulle’s successors toned down his more inflammatory rhetoric but never abandoned his fundamental principles. Consistent with Gaullist policy, the Socialist French President Francois Mittterand denied American F-111 overflight rights during the March 1986 Gulf of Sidra crisis. French President Jacques Chirac refused to support, much less participate in, the America-led 2003 invasion of Iraq. It was in the spirit of his predecessors that Macron sought to distance himself from Washington.

Macron’s motives were as much, if not more, economic than political. His large delegation to China included numerous businessmen who proceeded to sign 18 agreements to expand Franco-Chinese cooperation in manufacturing, green development, new energy and innovation. Macron also took a far less restrictive position than Washington, with regard to joint employment of Chinese 5G technology. Macron’s visit also increased the likelihood that sales of Airbus to China would continue to outpace those of Boeing.

Gaullist dreams of a Europe led by France that somehow would be completely detached from the United States have never materialized. And not much will come of Macron’s vision of European “strategic autonomy.” His trip to Beijing certainly pleased his hosts and, for that matter, the Kremlin, which noted his relative reticence regarding Ukraine. Ultimately, however, his visit will have little material impact on the course of the Russo-Ukrainian war and, while certainly annoying — indeed, infuriating — will not cause the United States or its key allies to back away from supporting Taiwan against Chinese bullying or worse. 

Finally, Macron’s pilgrimage to Beijing in no way will relieve him of his domestic headaches, however much he might have hoped that his temporary absence from Paris would have done so.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987. 

Tags Charles De Gaulle China Emmanuel Macron Europe France strategic autonomy Ursula von der Leyen US-France relations

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