Macron stands apart from the United States – and Europe

  • Themes: China, France

The French President’s visit to China demonstrates why European Strategic Autonomy cannot be just a French Project.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and France's President Emmanuel Macron meet at the Guandong province governor's residence April 7, 2023. Credit: Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo.

Last week, President Emanuel Macron’s interview with journalists from Politico and Les Echos caused considerable controversy. Coming at the end of an official visit to Beijing, with no tangible diplomatic success, the interview focused on Macron’s desire to prioritise the pursuit of greater strategic autonomy for Europe. In expressing this view, the French President suggested that, in the case of renewed tensions over Taiwan, Europe should firmly distance itself from the United States in its rivalry with China.

At a first glance, there appears little to object to in Macron’s stance. A degree of agency is essential to shape international affairs and, with the war in Ukraine, it seems reasonable to try and manage expectations about European involvements in crises elsewhere. The visit to China offered, in theory, a political opportunity that the French President sought to maximise by inviting the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to join him. Reportedly, the pair also met in Paris for a preparatory lunch before the trip.

Yet, the circumstances of their diplomatic efforts turned opportunity into calamity. Macron’s remarks during the visit, further amplified by observations he made during the interview, not only undermined European unity, but also damaged European credibility. And without credibility it is not possible to have agency in international affairs.

Macron’s remarks rewarded China’s coercive behaviour As Macron delivered a message that distanced Europe from events across the Straits of Taiwan, China was conducting a series of assertive military activities. As the delegation arrived in Beijing, the maritime safety administration in Fujian announced a three-day joint patrol and inspection operation, which included the option to board ships in the central and northern parts of the strait. These areas include the sea-lanes linking Taiwan to the islands of Matsu and Kinmen.

As this activity drew to a close, a major military exercise began, which continued for the duration of the visit. The exercise included tactical activities that would be consistent with the targeting of military bases in Taiwan, and a blockade of the island.  When asked about Taiwan, Macron declared this was not a crisis that belonged to Europe.

Such remarks fundamentally undermined references in the joint Sino-French statement that summed up the results of the visit. One passage in particular reaffirmed the importance ‘for development of each country, of promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with the purpose and principles of the UN Charter’. In the face of China’s aggressive behaviour both at home and towards Taiwan, this language undermines any role Europe aspires to as a global actor with the capacity and leadership to support and uphold international norms.

This is also the area in which European disunity is most visible. In a major speech given on 30 March, shortly before the trip, Von der Leyen specifically referred to China’s repressive and assertive conduct, and, once she landed in China, was similarly clear-eyed in her assessment of Xi Jinping. From her perspective, he was locked in a power struggle with the United States, intent on reshaping the global order and making China its primary driving force. She and Macron, it seems, could not be farther apart in their approach to China.

Yet, in the interview, Macron compared Xi Jinping’s prioritisation of China’s unity to his own concerns about European unity. For him, the crisis across the strait was one resulting from an ‘acceleration’ of the American push-back on China and Beijing’s ‘overreaction’. This was a particularly disingenuous representation of the events. Since the re-election of Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen in 2020, and her call for China and Taiwan to discuss on equal terms the future of cross strait relations, Chinese responses have been increasingly delivered through military coercion and threats. Macron’s assessment, wittingly or unwittingly, plays into the hands of policymakers in the United States calling for a more significant disengagement from Europe in order to prioritise challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

The French President also undercut the broader appeal of his own argument in favour of European strategic autonomy. European views vary considerably on the role of the United States in international security, especially concerning the military costs of the war in Ukraine, and on the United States’ contribution to a global order based on the rule of law. One particular area of contention is how autonomous Europe should be, and from whom it should seek this autonomy. One certainty is that, in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, the significance of the United States to regional security remains a core assumption. Any discussion over European autonomy has to include a constructive and close trans-Atlantic relationship.

In his call for a strategic autonomy that pits Europe as a counterweight to the United States, President Macron alienated important voices on the continent and damaged the unity that underwrites it. Equally, as he presented a French view of what strategic autonomy should mean for Europe, he indirectly denied wider European agency. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, countries from the Baltic to Central and Eastern Europe, from Finland to Sweden, to Poland and the UK – to name a few – have developed different political and military formats to enhance a sense of European initiative. This is not equal to French notions of autonomy, but it is substantive.

In part, the controversy from Macron’s remarks resulted from the meagre gains of the visit itself. Despite the large business component of the delegation, and the French intention to advance on issues such as China’s support for Russia, there was no real progress or significant concession. Xi Jinping made no changes to its stance. Shortly after the visit was concluded, Chinese social media reported that a French navy vessel had transited the strait during the military exercises. This is an important reminder that French naval presence in the region is notable, but it is unlikely to have given the Chinese leadership a reason to review any of its existing positions.

Conscious of the controversy, Macron sought to amend some of his comments by stating in a subsequent press conference that he holds to the position that there should be no change to the status quo in the strait. Still, the events of the past week are important because they are a reminder that in a multilateral context unity of purpose – a unity  strategic in ambition and scope – is an essential ingredient. It speaks to the credibility of the organisation and it is the result of a shared agreement rather than as the result of one specific view. In Europe, unity over the defining issues of our age, notably China and the challenges it poses, should be the first step to develop such credibility. This process will need to amount to more than an extension of a French project. A credible and united Europe should know how to pursue autonomy and what it looks like.


Alessio Patalano