Vidya Ram

Macron’s foreign policy, a grey area

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on May 12, 2017

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That includes how France will approach India, even as continuity rather than change is on the cards

While a good deal is known about the domestic and European ambitions of French president-elect Emmanuel Macron, the same cannot be said of his goals for France’s connections with the rest of the world. With a few exceptions — such as criticism of Russia over alleged interference in the presidential elections and his commitment to reinforcing alliances such as Nato — much of his campaign focused on the social and economic reforms he hopes will help revive France’s fortunes, as well as the strengthening of the European project he hopes to champion (dependent of course on other partners, not least Germany).

His election “programme” (manifesto) makes just a few mentions of other nations or regions beyond Europe, including China, Russia and the US (which he highlights as competitors who France is better able to stand up to as part of Europe) and Africa (towards which he pledges a new policy approach). While there is no mention of India, it is possible to get a sense of what will lie ahead for France-India relations from the trajectory of his strategy to date.

Reading the signs

The initial signs are that relations will follow the same track they have under past presidencies, which has seen a gradual strengthening of ties following the 1998 strategic dialogue, which led to strategic partnerships in areas such as space, defence and civil nuclear cooperation.

“On core foreign policy issues such as security and defence, the fight against terrorism, we are not likely to see much change,” says Jean Luc Racine, senior CNRS fellow at the Centre for South Asian Studies (EHESS) in Paris. He noted the particularly warm reception to Macron’s election from President Pranab Mukherjee who in a statement this week hailed the “decisive mandate” for his leadership and vision, and highlighted India’s “multifaceted strategic partnership” with the country. Prime Minister Nareandra Modi who also congratulated Macron for his “emphatic victory” is due to meet him at the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July this year, though Racine believes it will take longer for new parameters of the bilateral relationship to become apparent.

Asian ties

The continuance of strong ties with India were likely to be supported by the decision of Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister under President Francoise Hollande who was key to furthering France’s strategic partnerships across Asia, to support Macron, who has been warmly welcomed into his camp, says Francoise Godement, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “I think we have a somewhat contradictory picture of (Macron) — on the one hand he is someone who has met and created a network with hundreds of people who advise him but he is also known to be someone who makes his decisions within a tight circle so he is presumably someone who learns a lot but makes his own decisions,” he added.

India and France maintained a close relationship during Hollande’s presidency: with Modi visiting France in early 2015 (his first visit as prime minister to a European nation), followed by a visit later that year to attend the UN climate change conference in Paris. Hollande visited India in January 2016, during which a number of commercial and economic agreements were reached, as well as those relating to defence, space, railways, and the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft by India.

While defence and strategic cooperation has been strong, a Macron presidency could spur greater cooperation in the areas of business and economy, says Godement, noting Macron’s overall emphasis on strengthening the French economy, which has seen tepid growth rates in recent years, and tackling high levels of unemployment, as well as the enthusiasm with which he welcomed foreign investment to the country (particularly from China) while economy minister in the Hollande administration. His adherence to free trade and open border principles were reiterated strongly during his electoral campaign including during a visit to a factory in his home town of Amiens where he very publicly debated with Marine Le Pen supporters, arguing that closing borders and protectionist measures would not help save French jobs and the economy in the long run. Bilateral trade between India and France has grown steadily (from €5.13 billion in 2006 to €8.5 billion in 2015). France is the ninth largest foreign investor in India, while around 75 Indian companies operate in France, employing around 7,000 people.

Welcoming stance

Godement noted that while Macron’s clearest stances on immigration had centred around EU citizens, his overall economic ambitions — particularly to spur innovation in the French economy — would likely include an approach that welcomed skilled talent from countries such as India. “His views have tended to emerge through the economic lens and that is likely to be true of his foreign policy approach,” he said. Racine added Macron’s approach would also likely emphasise an openness to international students for higher education or doctorate-level study, given his focus on innovation and education. Much of the potential for strengthening the bilateral relationship will of course depend on external factors such as Macron’s ability to secure the closer European relationship that he has been seeking, which he argues will be key to the region’s and France’s success. While this will of course depend on the cooperation of European partners (not least Germany), Macron’s ability to carry out reforms domestically will depend on the structure of the legislative assembly (and who becomes the next prime minister), which will be decided in elections that follow next month.

Much will depend on the success of his La Republique en Marche candidates as well as those of other parties: a strong performance by either the La France Insoumise (Rebellious France) camp of leftwing Jean Luc Melenchon (which is strongly against many of Macron’s policy proposals, including reforms to the labour market) or the protectionist, anti-immigrant National Front could make his reform ambitions harder to realise. This will be less so when it comes to foreign policy, though, notes Godement who points to the greater freedom given constitutionally to the presidency on issues of foreign policy and defence, requiring the prime minister to work for and with the president, even when they came from opposing political camps.

Still, Godement believes that in contrast to some past presidencies, Macron’s was likely to focus on longer-term economic issues — domestically and internationally — rather than becoming immersed in big ticket geopolitical issues and interventionism that had weighed on past presidencies. “He cannot avoid these but is likely to attempt a different approach,” he says.

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Published on May 12, 2017
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