Is it time to put Freedom Fries back on the menu? Back in 2003, french fries became freedom fries in the US in disgust with "our so-called ally, France" who took an independent "self-serving" course and refused to support US policy on Iraq. Having finally become popular on American menus again, is it time, once again, to replace French fries with freedom fries?
France is not breaking with the US and charting its own course against Russia in the war in Ukraine. But it is gently veering off. And in the prelude to any future conflict with China, the gap is wider and the course more independent.
The US has insisted on the acceptance of the starting point that Russia’s war on Ukraine is unprovoked. It has refused, including refusal to negotiate Russia’s December 2021 security proposals, to take seriously Russia’s security concerns or to negotiate security guarantees for Russia. It has refused to even discuss NATO expansion to Ukraine or NATO troops and weapons in Ukraine, topics that were never even on the table.
French President Emmanuel Macron, however, has said that the West should prepare to negotiate all three. Veering widely off the course charted by the White House, Macron has said that "We need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table. One of the essential points we must address – as President Putin has always said – is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors, and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia."
Breaking from the US, France has glanced, at least, at Russia’s fear of NATO on its borders and weapons at its door. It has heard Russia’s calls for the indivisibility of security and said the West needs to reconsider how to protect its allies while guaranteeing the security concerns of Russia. Macron has gone so far as to agree with Putin that Ukraine joining NATO and NATO deployment of weapons in Ukraine are “essential points” that must be negotiated.
France is firmly in the US fleet in supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia, but it is veering away in preparing for the negotiations to end the war.
And when it comes to preparing for a future conflict with China, France is veering even further away and, seemingly, charting its own course.
President Biden cannot get Chinese President Xi Jinping to talk to him. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cannot get his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu, to take his calls. And China has refused to put Antony Blinken’s trip to Beijing "back on the calendar" after the US Secretary of State canceled his scheduled February visit over the Chinese balloon incident.
Macron, however, does not need to beg for a brief phone call. He is in Beijing for three days where he will be granted more than six hours of personal meetings with XI, "treatment described by Western diplomats as exceptional."
And it is not just China that is treating France differently. France is treating China differently. In a significant break from the US, France is far from dismissing China’s role as a broker in negotiations to end the war: it is encouraging it.
On February 24, China published its “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” It pledged that China is willing to assume “a constructive role in this regard.” The US has consistently and assertively rejected that role. Biden dismissed it as "just not rational." National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said that "we don’t support calls for a ceasefire right now. We certainly don’t support calls for a ceasefire that would be called for by the [People’s Republic of China] in a meeting in Moscow that would simply benefit Russia.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that "the world should not be fooled."
Macron has taken a firmly independent stance. On April 5, Macron insisted that China could play a "major role" in negotiating an end to the war and "made clear that he would urge the Chinese president, XI Jinping, to get deeply involved in this effort." According to a French diplomatic official, Macron "has worked enormously to see how, with China, we can be useful to the benefit of Ukrainians." Macron has argued that China is "the sole country in the world capable of changing Moscow’s calculus" on the war, according to the official. At their meeting, Macron appealed to XI to use his influence with Russia to bring about "a durable peace" and told him "I know I can count on you . . . to bring Russia to its senses and bring everyone back to the negotiating table." This course is a radically different one than the course ordered by Washington.
But it is not just on the conflict with Russia that France is charting an independent course on China. France is veering away from the US in the conflict with China.
France is not realigning or abandoning their allies. The French official explains that "We are an ally of the Americans. We are not equidistant between China and the United States. But we don’t have the same positions on China, because we don’t have the same interests."
The disagreement is fundamental. The Biden administration’s signature foreign policy framework has been the battle between democracy and autocracy. France is not subscribing to that Manichean battle. Macron refuses to conclude that different forms of government entail a generational battle. He told his French audience in Beijing on the first day of his trip that "differences over political systems that make Europe and China ‘rivals’ should not lead to the ‘decoupling’ and ‘escalating tensions’ that some regard as inevitable." He insisted that "I do not believe, and do not want to believe, in this scenario."
On a pragmatic level, that fundamental break with the US worldview translates into a break with the US on confronting and sanctioning China. The Times reports that Macron arrived in China "determined to carve out a distinct role for Europe that avoids America’s confrontation with an assertive China." Macron is reportedly "determined to carve out an independent position, one more conciliatory toward China than the American one."
The US has pressured the EU to re-examine and harden its trade policies with China. Should China more forcefully insert itself into the peace process to end the war or more assertively assist Russia in waging the war, that US pressure on the EU to sanction China could grow.
Macron has been "critical of the Biden administration’s tough line on China," according to The Times, "and believes any decoupling, or "de-linking," is not good for Europe, given the vast economic interests at stake." The French objective, according to The Times’ diplomatic source, "is not to break ties with China. On the contrary, our objective is to reinforce those ties on better foundations." Macron has gone so far as to say that his aim in meeting with XI is to "relaunch a strategic and global partnership with China."
Macron is not alone on his independent course. He is enjoying some European company. In November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz wrote that the emergence of China "in a multipolar world" does not “justif[y] . . . calls by some to isolate China.” He said that “even in changed circumstances, China remains an important business and trading partner for Germany and Europe – we don’t want to decouple from it.” Scholz then went to Beijing, accompanied by the CEOs of Volkswagen, BMW, BASF, Bayer and Deutsche Bank, in part to discuss trade.
On March 31, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez met with XI in Beijing where trade, energy and tourism were discussed.
And Macron is not traveling to Beijing alone. He is accompanied by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Though von der Leyen has communicated a mixed message on China, accusing it of having the goal of "systemic change of the international order with China at its center," she said in a speech on March 30 that "it is neither viable – nor in Europe’s interest – to decouple from China."
France’s policies on what can be negotiated with Russia and who can broker negotiations with Russia as well as its policies on partnering and trading with China suggest that, while far from breaking with the US, France is prepared to chart its own independent foreign policy course.
Ted Snider is a regular columnist on US foreign policy and history at Antiwar.com and The Libertarian Institute. He is also a frequent contributor to Responsible Statecraft and The American Conservative as well as other outlets.