If there is one concept dear to France in the field of defence, which sums up the French vision of European defence, it is without doubt that of “strategic autonomy”. Regularly leading to misunderstandings or concerns from Paris’ allies, it is increasingly replaced by "strategic sovereignty", a term deemed more conciliatory. Beyond this semantic debate, and prior to any analyses of France’s agenda in terms of European defence, a definition of the structuring concept around French defence is necessary.
France’s understanding of “strategic autonomy” encompasses several complementary dimensions. On the one hand, it entails the capacity to act autonomously, that is, to have the institutional framework and capability means necessary to respond to any type of crisis, across the full spectrum of operations, from hybrid to high-intensity conflicts. This implies a complete armed forces model as well as a first entry capability. On the other hand, “strategic autonomy” involves an autonomous assessment and decision-making capacity through proper intelligence and command capabilities. Last but not least, it reflects the willingness to reduce extra-European dependencies in all fields, whether it concerns military equipment or critical infrastructures in strategic areas such as transport, energy, space, or digital technologies (i.e., raw materials, critical minerals, artificial intelligence, data storage, quantum computing, and 5G, to name a few).
In short, it aims at ensuring France’s and Europe’s autonomy over assessment, decision, and action, a triptych which has guided France’s approach vis-à-vis European defence in recent years and continues to guide it under the current French Presidency of the EU Council (PFUE 2022).
Emmanuel Macron’s election in 2017 was indeed accompanied by a French willingness to revive and strengthen European defence cooperation (epitomised by Macron’s famous ‘Sorbonne speech’ in September 2017), which resulted in the launch of several initiatives at various levels (bilateral, multilateral, and EU), such as the development of structuring bi- or multinational capability programmes (i.e. CaMo, Eurodrone, FCAS, MGCS…), the implementation of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) around “able and willing” countries, or more recently the establishment of the Takuba Task Force, to name a few. At the political level, France promoted its vision of “a shared strategic autonomy” by pushing an ambitious European Defence Fund (EDF), an ambitious Strategic Compass (despite its initial reluctance), the establishment of the European Peace Facility (EPF), and the operationalization of the “mutual defence clause” (Art. 42.7 TEU).
These developments, as well as the agenda of the current French presidency of the Council of the EU, have been driven by what can be considered as the guiding principle of France’s approach to European defence policy: strengthening Europe’s autonomous capacity for action, developing a shared strategic culture among Member States, finding common answers to emerging and future threats, as well as reducing technological and industrial dependencies.
Though some progress was achieved under the French Presidency, especially through the adoption of an ambitious Strategic Compass — a step towards the emergence a common strategic culture which notably foresees the implementation of a Rapid Deployment Capacity (EU RDC) of up to 5.000 troops (an idea dear to France, which was already mentioned in the Sorbonne speech) —, a lot remains to be done, and the current crisis in Ukraine was a wake-up call to most Members States to strengthen European defence. While France welcomes this awareness and the announced increase in defence spending by several EU countries, there is a clear concern about how these new budgets will be used, with concerns that insufficient coordination between Member States and off-the-shelf purchases might benefit the US industry rather than Europe’s, ultimately creating new dependencies.
Consolidating a strong and competitive European Defence Industrial Base (EDTIB) by bringing different national industrial bases closer together, supporting SMEs, and encouraging the emergence of European champions, both prime- and subcontractors, remains on top of France’s agenda with regards to European strategic autonomy. Especially at a time when several countries are engaging a complete modernization of their armed forces. As such, Paris is advocating for a greater harmonising of the recently introduced capability instruments (CARD, PESCO, EDF), following the “avoid unilateral and imposed dependencies” motto by favouring mutually consented ones among EU countries. This vision seems to have taken hold when considering the Versailles Declaration, where Member States agreed to reduce their energy dependencies, focus their investments on identified strategic shortfalls, and develop new incentives to encourage collaborative investments in joint procurement programmes.
At the operational level, France’s agenda remains guided by three key priorities whose urgency has been emphasised by the current crisis in Ukraine: accelerating the operationalization of the European command structures (EUMS/MPCC) to guarantee the EU’s operational engagement capacity, operationalising the “mutual defence clause” (Art. 42.7), and increasing the use of the European Peace Facility (EPF) to support partner countries. On the eve of the French presidential elections, only the future will tell whether these priorities shall evolve or remain the same.
 A Franco-Belgian comprehensive armaments cooperation programme in the field of land mobility.
 French Strategic Review update, French ministry of armed forces, January 2021.