The Reformist

Echoes of “La Tradition Gaullienne” in Macron’s Take on China

Rakshit Mohan


Apr 23 2023

Image source: 

Wikimedia Commons

Image source: 

Wikimedia Commons

This report was originally published at Politeia Research Foundation on April 19, 2023.

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”, said Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci’s proclamation on the state of the world following the first world war seems prophetic even for our times. Today, if I may be so bold, I would like to argue that liberalism-based unity within the West is the old world of global politics and that unity is weakening slowly, if not dying a slow death. It needs revitalisation.

The apprehension stirred up by the visit of French President Emmanuel Macron to China is noteworthy. President Macron questioned if it was in Europe’s interest to “accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan”, and argued, “the worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” The slew of statements given to Les Echos shows how divergence within the liberal West and cynicism about transatlantic ties have cast their shadow upon the old world of Western unity under the umbrella of liberal democracy. This author had previously argued that the EU was “on the horns of a deeply troubling dilemma” vis-à-vis Russia and China and that in the quest to balance Russia, the EU ought not to lose sight of the troubles brewing in the Indo-Pacific.

President Macron’s statements about Taiwan suggest a divergence between the US and the French positions in the Indo-Pacific. The French, perhaps, are closing their eyes to the troubles brewing in the Indo-Pacific. However, it is important to understand the motivations behind issuing such a statement on Taiwan by the French President. While it is difficult to venture into the mind of the French President, theoretical frameworks may provide reasonable explanations.

The first set of explanations emerges from the perceptions within the domestic polity of France about France’s role in international relations. There are firm proponents of “La Tradition Gaullienne” in French strategic circles. The school’s adherents argue that it is prudent for France to pursue strategic autonomy rather than join forces with the United States and be in a subordinate position in the relations between Europe and America. “La tradition Gaullienne” argues that akin to President de Gaulle’s call for strategic autonomy and indictment of US foreign policy during the cold war, the current French position is prudent. Given the existence of a vibrant strategic culture within France, domestic perceptions about French foreign policy have a bearing on the positions that leaders take. It is not surprising, therefore, that President Macron, apart from making calls for the creation of a “third pole”, also talked about the demerits of the “extra-territoriality of the US dollar” and called for reducing dependence on it. Therefore, a strong internal rationale exists for the position that President Macron has taken vis-à-vis China, the USA, and Taiwan.

The second set of explanations stems from the point of view of liberalism. The French President envisages deepening ties with China to enhance the economic well-being of French businesses and citizens. The French President was accompanied by a sizeable business delegation, and significant agreements were signed in the energy sector, especially in the wind and nuclear energy sectors. In addition, there is growing cooperation between the French and the Chinese businesses in sectors such as luxury goods, automotive, aerospace and infrastructure. At a time when the French economy is reeling under a slowdown, and there are domestic pressures emanating from the slowdown in the form of protests, the French hope to improve the economic situation by tapping the opportunities in the gargantuan consumer market of China. Finally, with deeper business and economic ties with China, the French may expect to influence Chinese behaviour by using mutual dependence as leverage.

This essay contends that reciprocal reliance is a double-edged sword and that the Chinese can use it more skillfully than the French. For instance, the French have a significant trade deficit with China owing to greater export competitiveness of the Chinese manufacturing goods. The liberal hopes of influencing strategic behaviour and socialising China towards responsible behaviour through trade provide a little clue about the situation at hand. The risk of concentrating on economic positions in China is significant for the French. If anything, the French should move towards de-risking trade with China by gradually diversifying away from China.

The third set of explanations stems from the point of view of realism. The realist perspective provides a more plausible explanation for the French President’s statement on Taiwan. The realist explanation can make room for incorporating the “La Tradition Gaullienne” arguments. The entrapment fears inform the agenda-setting for strategic autonomy. With speculations that China intends to gather capabilities to invade Taiwan by 2027 or earlier, the allies of the USA may become jittery about entrapment, given the USA’s commitment to defend Taiwan under the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022. Talks about a war in Taiwan are still in the realm of conjecture, and clear signals about Chinese preparation for invading Taiwan have not emerged yet. Already under economic pressure because of the Russia-Ukraine war, the French President may have thought it sagacious to send ambiguous signals from Europe to discourage conflagration in Taiwan and avoid entrapment in the future. However, the French must consider whether such a position will embolden China’s resolve to invade Taiwan.

Furthermore, the development of hard and structural power independent of and parallel to the NATO umbrella could be another of the motivations of the French President. The French have made the right noises about strategic autonomy and the creation of the third pole independent of China and the US. Paris is a proponent of creating a European army to defend the sovereignty of the European Union.

The French have been unhappy about the AUKUS submarine deal between the USA, the UK and Australia. France is too big a power to be treated as collateral damage in an agreement between three major Indo-Pacific powers. The loss to France emanating from the AUKUS deal has given rise to calls for an “allied but not aligned” stance. Shifts in perceptions due to major events should be taken seriously since perceptions and public opinion influence the behaviour of states. Conciliatory statements about China on the Taiwan issue could be France’s way of eking out concessions from the USA.

In addition to the abovementioned factors, China’s aspirations for regional hegemony are not an immediate threat to the position of France in Europe. The USA has much to lose in the near term if China establishes hegemonistic control over Asia. For France, China is a distant and long-term threat that can be managed tactfully with diplomacy and trade. Thus, France appears more yielding in its view about Taiwan because of a not-in-my-backyard attitude towards the Taiwan problem.

Ultimately, there are logically defensible and strategically advantageous benefits of European strategic autonomy. A Europe that is not defenceless and weak because of over-reliance on the security umbrella of the USA will generate a higher level of deterrence against the threats in the European zone of influence. Credible deterrence by Europe against European threats would empower the USA to pivot slowly but gradually towards the USA’s principal strategic rival. Although the impact of a stronger Europe on the Indo-Pacific may seem of marginal peripheral relevance to France, the situation is certainly a win-win for the French and the Americans.

France may have a plausible rationale for sending ambiguous signals vis-à-vis China. On the one hand, Paris has stressed the importance of rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. On the other hand, France has moved to deepen its economic and business partnerships with China. The ambiguity and contradiction in positions emerge as a tool for seeking concessions from both sides. The French seem to be in pursuit of a high-risk strategy, which may have repercussions for the European Union.

The downside risks of the French ambiguity vis-à-vis China are many-fold. Unclear and mixed messages from Paris can lead to a decrease in America’s trust in the dedication of the European Union to uphold rules-based order around the world. The not-in-my-backyard attitude of the French may only strengthen the USA’s resolve to pivot gradually out of Europe. In response to Macron’s recent statements, Senator Marco Rubio of the Republican party angrily retorted, “If Europe does not pick sides between the US and China over Taiwan, then maybe we shouldn’t be picking sides either [on Ukraine]”. If such a scenario unfolds and a transatlantic tirade influences public perceptions in the US, transatlantic ties will weaken further.

The Chinese would benefit from weakening Transatlantic ties as Beijing would get more room to play major Western powers against each other on contentious issues such as the AUKUS deal. While the Chinese wholeheartedly showered praise on President Macron, they gave a frosty reception to Ursula von der Leyen. On the one hand, the Chinese ambassador to the EU, Fu Chong, was quick to criticise Ursula von der Leyen’s statements on de-risking from China. Fu Chong remarked, “We do hope that the European governments and the European politicians can see where their interests lie and resist the unwarranted pressure from the US.” Fu Chong further peppered his statements with the threat that Europe’s failure to resist American pressure “will only be at their own peril”. On the other hand, the Global Times wrote in an editorial that Macron’s observations were “obviously a result of Macron’s long-term observation and reflection”, adding that “Macron’s reasoning is not complicated, and his attitude is clear-cut”. Regarding Senator Marco Rubio’s reaction, the Global Times editorial opined, “These blatant statements cannot be called criticism or opposition anymore, but are Washington’s completely undisguised bullying and coercion. Washington has a strong desire to control Europe, which is why Macron’s emphasis on European strategic autonomy is seen as a form of ‘betrayal’.” The Chinese must feel elated with the situation since they now have more gaping opportunities to highlight transatlantic divergences. Heightened divergences within the West would give China more room for manoeuvre, which means more territorialisation of the South China Seas, and, as a corollary, more threat to freedom of navigation on crucial international shipping lanes.

Recent French positions and statements have been criticised across the West and have caused a splintering of European rhetoric about the USA, Russia and China. Scathing criticism of the French President’s statements came from German MP Norbert Röttgen. Röttgen remarked that the French President had “managed to turn his China trip into a PR coup for Xi and a foreign policy disaster for Europe”. Röttgen further added that the French president was “increasingly isolating himself”. The German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took a position very different from the French position. She said that “a unilateral change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and especially a military escalation, would be unacceptable”. Katja Likert of the CDU termed Macron’s statements “extremely short-sighted” and suggested that Europe should strengthen its “defences against aggressive measures from Beijing”. Macron’s comments elicited widespread criticism across the political spectrum of Germany, a major EU power. Defendants of European ambivalence may label this shilly-shallying as a good cop-bad cop strategy, but such arguments may have little to do with reality. This essay argues that the splintered European rhetoric about China, Russia and the USA indicates that Europe is genuinely confused.

Seeing the West engaged in internal arguments, the Chinese may be emboldened to launch an invasion of Taiwan, much like Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine by gradually amassing troops all around Ukraine. Before a bickering West could evaluate intelligence and act pre-emptively, they found themselves acting post-facto only to mitigate the impact of war. The West must take home the unity lesson from the Russia-Ukraine war.

Internal bickering is not in the interest of either the Europeans or the Americans. However, balancing self-interest against the interests of the allies is emerging as an arduous task, especially in France-US relations. Europe must also reflect on the reasons behind divergent internal positions vis-à-vis Russia, China, and the US. European irresoluteness may be of little help to Europe and of great detriment to the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific. The West must re-emerge as a bloc with a purpose for the Indo-Pacific, and for that to happen, legitimate concerns of allies ought to be noted. The new purpose is, however, struggling to be born in the presence of Europe’s heavy economic dependence on China.

Thus, the world of alliances is in the doldrums. But all is not lost, and this essay has not been written to concoct a spectre of gloom and doom. The West, with its strong culture of internal deliberations and fierce debates, has managed sharp differences in the past, especially during the Cold War. Charles de Gaulle’s critical dialogue with the USA is an example of churning out solutions despite a cornucopia of problems. In contemporary times too, there are sharp differences in opinion within Europe and between Europe and the USA on issues ranging from security issues to economic and technological issues. The West has done it in the past, and the free world expects the same from them in the present. But for now, because Europe is indecisively shilly-shallying, Gramsci’s age of monsters seems imminent once more.


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Rakshit Mohan is the co-founder of The Reformist. He is a public policy enthusiast and an independent foreign policy analyst.