Thomas Gomart serves as Director of the French Institute of International Affairs (Ifri). A world-renowned Russia expert, he founded Ifri's Russia/NIS Centre in 2004 and directed it until 2013. His most recent book, "Guerres invisibles - Nos prochains défis géopolitiques", was published in 2021 by Éditions Tallandier. In this interview with ISPI, he provides an overview of France's diplomatic relations with the EU and Russia, and of the impact the current conflict in Ukraine has on Macron's policy agenda.
ISPI: Charles De Gaulle’s France enjoyed a sort of special relationship with the Kremlin, an unicum within the West during the Cold War. Does this legacy still matter today in Macron’s relations with Putin?
Gomart: “Yes and no. Yes, there is a continuation in the design of Paris’ diplomatic priorities. And no, because relations between Paris and Moscow are very often overestimated abroad. The first decision taken by Charles De Gaulle when he returned to power in 1958 was to focus on the French security policy. This led to the demand for the so-called Memorandum within NATO to reform its decision-making process to better engage France with UK and the US. Unfortunately, it was met with a ‘no’ from Washington and London. At the same time, Charles De Gaulle had a deep and strong relationship with Konrad Adenauer, which helped him relaunch Franco-German relations through the Élysée Treaty. Only later came the attempt to have détente, entente, and cooperation with the USSR. Still, it is crucial to remember that De Gaulle was Washington’s staunchest Western ally during the crises in Berlin and in Cuba.
This historical introduction is important because these parallel diplomatic ties with DC-London, Bonn-Berlin, and with the Kremlin do not have the same nature and relevance, since France is not an ally to Moscow. And these parallel relations have been replicated by each French President since Charles De Gaulle, including Macron. When he took power in 2017, he followed the same path along these three axes. He quickly organised a joint government meeting between France and Germany. He said that the priority for him was precisely the continuation of the European project through better cooperation between France and Germany. Second, he invited President Trump to celebrate the entry of the US in the First World War in July 2017. And he also invited President Putin at Trianon. So, you have these three pillars which are certainly not new, but they should not be misinterpreted. The priority is a system of alliances: first and foremost with NATO and the EU project. Only after these priorities comes the idea shared by all French Presidents that Russia is located in Europe and that it is better to have balanced relations with the Kremlin rather than the opposite.”
ISPI: How and to what extent does the war play into the hands of Macron?
Gomart: “This question has a lot to do with our institutional system: the French President is chef des armées, and it is very important to note that our institutional matrix since De Gaulle is of a military-political nature. The decision to elect French Presidents with universal suffrage was taken in 1962 when France has acquired nuclear weapons. This political-military matrix is increasingly ignored by public opinion and by our European allies, but it is at the core of our political system. It explains why French Presidents make decisions very easily in the military field and the very short chain of command: the French President can decide by himself on military issues, provided the Prime Minister confirms the decision. Having obtained the Prime Minister’s signature, the President can decide to intervene at any time. In the current circumstances – when threat levels are at their highest since many decades – a President with foreign policy experience, as is the case with Macron compared to the other candidates, acquires a high degree of credibility. Macron invested heavily in defence, by significantly increasing military spending through a strategic review of defence and armed forces. So yes, I think that the war is helping Macron because he is seen as a credible leader (more than the other candidates) on military affairs.”
ISPI: When it comes to the EU answer to the war, do you see any difference between the French national interest and the ones of Italy and Germany?
Gomart: “So yes, maybe what is striking, at this point, is the Western cohesion in their response to the war in Ukraine, even if energy mixes are completely different. I think that the current situation is much more challenging for Germany than for Italy and France, because Germany took the geo-economic decision to position itself as a sort of hub for Russian gas in the next two decades, but this will no longer be case. At the same time there is this idea in France that we are back to the beginning of the 1980s, a period of high strategic tensions due to the Euromissiles crisis. At that time, European countries (in opposition to the US) decided to establish gas relations with the USSR. There is a mindset in Paris that energy supplies and long-term contracts worked as tools for strategic stability in dealing with the USSR yesterday, and they could do the same today. But there is now a real paradigm shift: the possible embargo on oil and Russian gas was decided first of all in Washington D.C. rather than in European capitals, and as such European countries are in a much more difficult position than the US.”
ISPI: At the Versailles Summit Macron insisted on his flagship initiative on a much stronger EU foreign and security policy. Do you think France would be willing to share its seat at the UN Security Council with the EU and possibly make some of its nuclear arsenal available to a future European army?
Gomart: “The two questions should be separated in my view. As for the seat, I think it’s unrealistic because it entails a reform of the UN. And also because, even though there is some progress with the Strategic Compass, there are always issues among EU members on the bloc’s strategic priorities. So, that seems unrealistic to me and there is basically no debate on that in France.”
ISPI: Would France change its mind in case of enhanced cooperation on defence within a smaller group (e.g. Italy, France, Germany, and Spain)?
Gomart: “No, I don’t think so. As for nuclear capabilities, that’s completely different. This idea dates back to De Gaulle and is conceived as a way to protect our allies. There were different attempts to bring this forward, especially with Germany. At the beginning, one of the first decisions taken by De Gaulle in June 1958 was to stop nuclear cooperation with Israel, Italy, and Germany, although France did continue to cooperate secretly with Israel.
After the establishment of the Fifth Republic, however, he seemed to change his mind and considered France’s nuclear arsenal as an asset for all our European allies as well, especially Germany and Italy, and there was substantive discussion on this during the De Gaulle years. Discussions with Berlin took place, for instance, in 1989 about a possible strategic community between France and Germany. There is also another aspect to consider, the Lancaster Treaties between the UK and France, which are highly important with respect to our nuclear forces. So, on that issue - and there was some discussion after the statement made by Macron at the École de Guerre in February 2020 - I think there are certainly some possibilities.”