French President Emmanuel Macron meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 2022
French President Emmanuel Macron meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, February 2022
Sputnik Photo Agency / Reuters

Just two months before he stands for reelection, French President Emmanuel Macron has launched a bold effort to mediate between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the West over the standoff at the border with Ukraine. After meeting with Putin for five hours on February 7, Macron struck a hopeful tone, telling reporters that Putin had assured him that there would be “no degradation or escalation” of the crisis by Russia. But the following day, as Macron met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv before flying to Berlin to meet with his German and Polish counterparts, the Kremlin denied that Putin had made any specific commitment to Macron. From the start, it had been unlikely that these meetings would have much effect: Russia and Ukraine remain very far apart on the status of the Donbas and Ukraine’s sovereign right to decide its own future, and Russia has made de-escalation contingent on demands regarding NATO that many in the West view as unacceptable. Yet this bleak outlook didn’t discourage the French president: such long-odds shuttle diplomacy has been characteristic of Macron, who has made high-profile, if often exceedingly ambitious, diplomatic interventions a hallmark of his five years in office.

On issues ranging from reforming European governance to dealing with crises in the Middle East, Africa, and now Ukraine, Macron has pursued a fast-paced, extremely active foreign policy. During the Trump administration, he was one of the few Western leaders to make a point of cultivating a relationship with the American president, despite vast policy differences. And Macron has consistently pushed to shore up the European Union’s sovereignty, independence, and power in an increasingly competitive world.  

Yet the results of these efforts have been mixed. Macron’s personal attempts to resolve crises such as the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the diplomatic dispute between Lebanon and Saudi Arabia have not generated durable outcomes. Rapidly deteriorating relations with the ruling military junta in Mali as well as widespread political instability in the Sahel and West Africa are forcing France to reconsider its long-running counterterrorism mission in the region. Nor have Macron’s efforts to start a strategic dialogue with Russia, which he began in 2019 without broader European support, produced tangible results. They did succeed, however, in fueling suspicion among European partners that Macron was not committed to following a unified European strategy, rendering France’s current mediation efforts in Ukraine all the more difficult.

Indeed, Macron’s foreign policy often leaves observers puzzled. At times, he appears to be a ruthless dealmaker, brushing aside the norms and protocols of diplomacy with the faith that his political talent alone can solve entrenched conflicts; at other times, he seems to be a devoted multilateralist, bringing together leaders around Paris-led initiatives such as the One Planet Summits, which seek to promote cooperation on climate change, and the Paris Peace Forum, a newly created conference on global governance. Although he has long made clear his determination to turn the European Union into a great power, Macron often seems to favor bilateral or ad hoc formats or going it alone. And although Macron’s supporters applaud his audacity and agility, his critics accuse him of grandstanding and opportunism. The Ukraine crisis is no exception. At a time when many of France’s European allies are laser focused on maintaining unity, Macron has insisted on the importance of a revised European approach to Russia even at the risk of undermining U.S.-led negotiations with Moscow.

Now, as Macron comes up for reelection, new questions remain about what his underlying foreign policy goals are and how, with a renewed mandate, he might pursue them. At the core of his efforts is a drive to position France at the center of Europe and Europe as a stabilizing alternative to a bipolar world dominated by the United States and China—all the while ensuring that France’s own interests are heard loud and clear. As Europe faces its most serious security challenge from Russia in decades, and with France now holding the presidency of the Council of the European Union, Macron has a golden opportunity to prove the merits of his particular brand of pragmatic and personalized foreign policy to Europe and the world. But his strategy has also raised the stakes—for his reelection, for France’s voice on the global stage, and for the future of Europe.

Together and Alone

At the time of his 2017 victory over far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, less than a year after the Brexit referendum and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, Macron was embraced by many as a bulwark against a rising tide of nationalist populism. The young French president seized on this image and quickly worked to establish himself as the liberal leader of a multilateralist camp. As the Trump administration distanced itself from the international order, Macron worked to fill the vacuum of global leadership—by championing the Paris agreement on climate change after Washington’s withdrawal, defending the Iran nuclear deal, and rallying partners and allies behind international efforts ranging from ensuring global access to COVID-19 vaccines to preventing radicalization and violent extremism online.

But the image of Macron as a “multilateralist in chief” fails to account for some of the unusual bilateral relationships he has cultivated—including with Trump and Putin—often to the distaste of other European leaders. In many ways, Macron’s self-identification as a “progressive” has less to do with a political philosophy than with a method. In a 2019 pamphlet, Le progrès ne tombe pas du ciel, David Amiel and Ismaël Emelien, two former Macron advisers, defined his progressivism as “maximizing possibilities,” with the mission of “expand[ing] individual opportunities and perspective.” In practice, this has translated into an unorthodox, risk-taking foreign policy. Consider Macron’s convening of rival Libyan factions in a surprise effort to relaunch a political process in Libya or his rushing to Beirut after the deadly port explosion in the summer of 2020 and berating the Lebanese political class for their shortcomings. To Macron’s critics, these efforts have amounted to little more than public relations stunts. But the French president seems to believe that if there are enough wins, the losses won’t matter: possibilities will have been maximized and opportunities will have been expanded.

A French Union

Macron’s foreign policy does have one identifiable end goal: bolstering and transforming Europe. Although his predecessors blamed Brussels for France’s own failures, Macron embraces the European Union unapologetically. As he sees it, by making Europe stronger, France can maximize its influence: as he wrote in his 2016 book Révolution, Europe must be approached as a “true political project,” because “Europe is our chance to recover our full sovereignty.” For Macron, France alone cannot confront the global challenges of migration, terrorism, climate change, and digital transformation or withstand the power of the U.S. and Chinese economies—but a sovereign Europe can.

Focusing on Europe has largely served Macron well, and France’s influence in Europe has only grown in the past five years. Macron has reaped successes on a range of fronts: he has worked to overhaul rules governing mobile workers within the European Union; he has supported the establishment of an EU defense fund to foster Europe’s military industrial base; and he has helped design a new European Commission in a direction favorable to French interests. With former German Chancellor Angela Merkel having departed from the political scene and the new German leadership still finding its footing, Macron has also been given greater stature to lead Europe.

Macron believes that the pace of change in the world compels him to tackle every problem, on every front, at the same time.

And France currently presides at the Council of the European Union, for which Macron has no shortage of ambitions, such as advancing European legislation on digital affairs, pushing for an EU-wide minimum wage and a carbon border tax, encouraging a reform of migration and asylum laws, holding a summit with the African Union, and adopting the Strategic Compass, a security proposal which lays out a common vision for European defense. The range of the French proposals reveals the enormity of the work that is commonly carried out by EU institutions, but it also reflects an unfortunate lack of prioritization on Macron’s part. For the political analysts Francis Gavin and Alina Polyakova, despite Macron’s calls for Europe to assert its “strategic autonomy,” his actual proposals appear to be more of a “laundry list” of disparate ideas that “dilute its capabilities and focus.”

Other European leaders have not always played along. Macron’s “centrist revolution” has been stymied by nationalist forces on one side and the forces of the status quo on the other. As the Europe experts Yves Bertoncini and Thierry Chopin have argued, leadership in Europe requires humility, patience, and a capacity to create consensus—characteristics that stand in sharp contrast to Macron’s “imperial” approach, his occasional failure to consult European allies, and his often grandiose rhetoric. At times, Macron’s willingness to carve his own geopolitical path has generated backlash among his European peers: his unilateral launch of the strategic dialogue initiative with Russia in 2019, combined with his infamous description of NATO’s “brain death” in The Economist a few months later, made him appear out of sync with the rest of the continent rather than at its helm. Nonetheless, the current crisis with Ukraine has only reinforced Macron’s conviction that a strategic dialogue with Russia is needed. Although Washington seems convinced that a Russian invasion is imminent, Macron insists that war can and must still be avoided. With that objective in mind, he is pushing for the implementation of the 2014 Minsk Agreement that sought to end conflict in the Donbas, but he also seems open to discussing fundamental questions behind Europe’s security architecture in relation to Russia such as risk reduction efforts, arms control treaties, and transparency measures.

Macron’s approach, however, can be viable only if other European leaders are on board. Notably, in contrast to the United States and other Western powers, Macron has suggested that Russia is “legitimate” in stating that its security needs should be discussed. As Europe is threatened by Russia’s troop buildup on the Ukrainian border, it behooves France, as the holder of the Council’s presidency, to play the role of honest broker in the determination of a collective stance. Macron must first and foremost work to reassure Europeans on France’s position.

Disruptive Realism

Observers have struggled to describe Macron’s foreign policy doctrine, which Macron himself has declined to define. To the former French diplomat Michel Duclos, Macron is an “eclectic spirit” whose foreign policy consists of a “disruptive realism,” seeking to “face problems head on, assume conflict with interlocutors, use difficulties and disagreements to gain leverage.” As the Le Figaro diplomatic correspondent Isabelle Lasserre has written, Macron doesn’t mind letting a chaos of ideas reign in the Élysée Palace, although “in the end, Emmanuel Macron decides on his own.” Macron’s relations with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs over foreign policy have long been fraught, in particular concerning his insistence on a dialogue with Russia, which has encountered quiet resistance within the French diplomatic corps. Unfazed, the president continues to concentrate decision-making at the top and imposes a frenetic rhythm of work.

If Macron is impatient, it is not just a function of his youth or character—it is a function of his worldview. The French president believes that the pace of change in the world compels him to tackle every problem, on every front, all at the same time. Democracies, in his view, cannot afford to be slow and ineffective at a moment when the lives of their citizens are being upended, whether as a result of rising inequality, digital transformations, climate change, or pandemics. He has often called for a “results-driven multilateralism” aimed at leading and promoting desired policy goals rather than waiting for them to be imposed by others.

Macron has paid a growing price for his impatient pragmatism.

Macron’s frenzy to meet the moment affects Europe, too. Europe, Macron believes, must have a strong voice at a time of large-scale social and political change—and he is willing to take on the mantle of leadership even at the occasional expense of relationships with his neighbors. In particular, he argues, Europe needs to be less economically and strategically reliant on the United States and China. The European Union can do so, he asserts, by giving itself greater sovereignty and regaining control over its markets, its borders, and its security. If it fails to do so, predatory powers such as China and Russia will increasingly limit Europe’s influence and independence, as they have already begun to do. And Europe’s security is deteriorating faster than Macron’s capacity to rally European partners around concrete common defense projects.

The United States remains a particular challenge for Macron. Ever since the Biden administration came to power, Macron has had difficulty calibrating France’s positioning relative to Washington’s. Despite his self-characterization as a progressive fending off nationalists, the French president has done nothing to embrace the Biden administration’s democracy agenda. His camp is also indifferent, if not outwardly hostile, to the particular brand of progressive American thinking that underpins the Biden coalition.

The gap between France and the United States is widening on security challenges, too. The dispute with Washington over the AUKUS submarine deal—which preempted France’s own submarine deal with Australia—although well managed in the aftermath, exposed a structural vulnerability: as the United States increasingly focuses on Asia, its relationship with France, which in the years after 9/11 had become a crucial partner in the fight against terrorism—has lost some of its urgency. The current Ukraine crisis seems likely to test the U.S.-French relationship even further. For now, the United States has cautiously supported Macron’s effort at diplomacy—but skepticism runs high, as Washington believes that Putin is determined to invade either way. Macron seems to recognize the necessity of presenting a somewhat unified front with the United States. On February 8, he and his Polish and German counterparts echoed Washington by warning Moscow of far-reaching political, economic, and geostrategic consequences should Russia breach Ukraine’s territorial integrity. As Macron positions himself as the world leader capable of steering Putin toward a path of de-escalation—and of recalibrating Europe’s security architecture with less reliance on Washington’s help or input—he must tread lightly in order not to appear to be opening a rift among allies at a time when unity is the best deterrence against Russia.

More Chances, More Risks

As his first term comes to an end, no one can deny that Macron has transformed the way France asserts its leadership in Europe and internationally. Arriving in office declaring that he is beholden to no particular ideology, he has not let historic allegiances, customs, or his own inexperience get in the way of his ambitions. With time, however, Macron has paid a growing price for his impatient pragmatism. In the current crisis with Russia, France’s role as an honest broker has been weakened by suspicions from allies that Macron may be blind to the true nature of the Putin regime or intrinsically opposed to U.S.-led negotiations.

Should Macron be reelected for a second term, he will be given a further chance to turn his frenetic foreign policy into concrete results. Macron’s success in the coming months will be inextricably linked to that of the European Union: if he is able to get the EU to adopt an ambitious common defense strategy and push through new new digital or carbon rules, he will be able to claim a productive presidency. But he will also have to take care of a rapidly deteriorating situation in Mali and political instability throughout West Africa and decide whether to pull out troops, with the acknowledgement of failure that such a move might convey. Hardest of all will be to maintain a united, collective European voice on the question of Russia and Ukraine, especially if the situation deteriorates rapidly. Macron’s course correction from his unpopular, unilateral, and unfruitful strategic dialogic with Moscow in 2019 to the care he has now taken to consult with allies on Russia sets him on a good path to help guide Europe through a turbulent future. But the French president’s impatience, audacity, and consistent impulse to maximize possibilities may continue to cost him—and the continent.

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  • CELIA BELIN is Visiting Fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
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