Has Macron Become Unmoored?

In the early days of the war in Ukraine, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, was somewhat isolated as Europe’s leading dove. But in more recent days of the war, he is somewhat isolated as the leading hawk. And even as the hawk, he seems to fly whichever way the wind blows.

From the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States and its partners have insisted that Russia’s invasion was unprovoked. They have demanded unity in the refusal to negotiate three points: Russia’s security demands, the right of Ukraine to choose to join NATO, and the right of NATO to put weapons in Ukraine.

Macron has veered dovishly away from his partners in the political West. He has recognized the benefit of a willingness to discuss all three.

On December 3, 2022, Macron said in a French television interview, “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.”

Macron maintained that the political West must listen to Vladimir Putin’s pleas for the indivisibility of security, the principle that one country cannot increase its security at the cost of another, and “give guarantees to Russia about its security concerns.” He also conceded that it is “essential” to negotiate Russia’s objection to Ukraine joining NATO and NATO deploying weapons in Ukraine.

But a year later, the leading dove has become the leading hawk.

On February 26, 2024, Macron became the representative of the most hawkish position, saying that “no option should be discarded” in ensuring the defeat of Russia, including “troops on the ground” in Ukraine.

Though Macron’s statement was deliberate and strong, it has not been fixed. The illusive meaning of “troops on the ground” continues to shift.

It seemed clear enough at first, and when Macron’s partners objected, he told Europe “not to be a coward.” But the French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu seemed to try to gentle the meaning, clarifying that Macron meant sending troops into Ukraine to help with operations like de-mining and training, “not sending troops to wage war against Russia.” Lecornu tried to take some of the talons out of Macron’s hawkish position, insisting that such troop deployments would not be “crossing the belligerence threshold.”

But then the hawk seemed to blow with the wind again. On March 14, in a French television interview, Macron said that anyone who advocates “limits” on how the West helps Ukraine “chooses defeat.” He insisted that “if the situation should deteriorate, we would be ready to make sure that Russia never wins that war.” Europe must be “ready,” he said, “to reach the means to achieve our objective, which is that Russia does not win.”

But then he shifted again. Insisting once more that “all these options are possible,” Macron then said that “We’re not in that situation today.” When, then, would we be in that situation? Russia’s advancing battlefield success seems to be irreversible. If not today, would France really send troops? Or was Macron’s statement meant to create “strategic ambiguity,” as Macron’s office has claimed, so that Russia cannot rely on the assumption, as one French diplomat said, “that none of Ukraine’s partner countries will ever be deployed” to Ukraine?

Macron said that “It wouldn’t be us” who would trigger such a move and that France would not lead an offensive into Ukraine against Russia. “[I]t would be Russia’s sole choice and sole responsibility.” He then hinted at a shifting meaning of being sure that “Russia does not win,” saying that “If war was to spread to Europe,” it would “be weak, to decide today that we would not respond.”

Is Macron threatening the deployment of Western troops to Ukraine to save Ukraine or only when it becomes necessary to do so to save Europe? The latter, but perhaps not the former, could explain why “we’re not in that situation today.”

Macron’s hawkish words and dovish deeds have been on display on issues other than the willingness to negotiate with Russia and the willingness to deploy troops to Ukraine. France is pressuring Germany to send Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine. Macron called on Germany not to be a coward and to remember that they once said “’never, never tanks; never, never planes; never, never long-range missiles… I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We will offer sleeping bags and helmets.'”

But Germany has committed $17.7 billion in military aid to Ukraine, second only to the United States’ $42.2 billion, while France has put up only $0.6 billion. If Macron is the most hawkish, he is also the least aggressively supportive.

Macron’s position has been hard to anchor. At the start of the war, Macron was one of the last to talk to Putin and one of the first to encourage diplomatic talks with him. Two years later, he is one of the clearest in his refusal to rule out NATO troops in Ukraine but unclear about what that means or what would trigger it. Of late, he has simultaneously been one of the most aggressive in his calls for military support for Ukraine and one of the most timid in his commitment of military aid to Ukraine. Macron’s position as a dove or a hawk seems somewhat unmoored.

Ted Snider is a regular columnist on U.S. 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. To support his work or for media or virtual presentation requests, contact him at tedsnider@bell.net.