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President Macron and France’s Security Crisis

May 6th, 2017

By Kalyani Subbiah – Research Assistant

A former investment banker, the new French President, Emmanuel Macron, primarily focused on economic issues and the EU during the course of his campaign. En Marche’s emphasis on EU integration and globalism extend to Mr. Macron’s policy on defense and internal security. However, the President needs to address the concerns of an electorate that has endured an internal security crisis, which has left 242 dead in terrorist attacks since January 2016. Marine Le Pen’s campaign, which capitalized on this fear in a fractured electorate, won almost 34 % of the vote-share, with over a quarter of the French populace abstaining due to their disillusionment with both candidates. For Mr. Macron, this means that, rather than dismissing the concerns of Ms. Le Pen and her supporters as fear-mongering, he needs to implement a coherent policy to improve the security situation that is not just a continuation of the old, reactionary approach to the crisis.

During her campaign, Ms. Le Pen pledged to ban all immigration until border ‘controls’ were restored, after which she would limit immigration to 10,000 every year. Mr. Macron’s focus during the campaign was to shift the debate from ‘fear’ to ‘hope’ with regards to immigration, by stressing the humanitarian and economic dimensions of the inflow of asylum-seekers and immigrants. Therefore, Mr. Macron has rejected immigration controls that could stunt the economy and poison intercommunity relations. Instead of such temporary stop-gaps, he has chosen to focus on the ‘root causes’ of the refugee and security crisis, by improving internal security and through foreign interventions. Domestically, the President has proposed to recruit 10,000 new police officers and expand prison capacity by 15,000 inmates. This is similar to Ms. Le Pen’s plan, though lesser in scale. Although terrorism is France’s most high-profile security issue, much of the capability wielded by attackers is sourced through the country’s drugs gangs, who would need to be taken on as part of a comprehensive security plan. The drug trade has established a black market for illegal fire-arms trafficked from Eastern Europe, such as AK-47s, which were used in the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 and the recent Champs-Elysees incident. But a mere expansion of the police force and prison capacity will not be sufficient to address the security problems in France’s banlieues, where drug trade networks flourish (France is the largest consumer of cannabis in the EU). Despite a national ban on fire-arms, statistics from France’s National Observatory for Delinquency state that fire-arm numbers in the country have grown by double-digit percentages in recent years. The administration needs to focus on a concerted crackdown on drug networks and cronyism in the police system in order to improve the security situation. While addressing radicalization is a long-term measure, this is a more feasible short-term alternative.

President Macron has also vowed to re-negotiate the Le Touquet treaty with Britain, hence appealing to popular qualms about the Calais camp. According to the treaty signed in 2003, any one of the signing parties is allowed to withdraw from the agreement. The Calais camp is viewed as a security threat and a human rights aberration in France, and Brexit has further provoked outrage toward Britain for not doing its ‘fair share’ in the refugee crisis. However, letting refugees and migrants travel to Britain will only result in increased costs for both countries due to repatriation, increase the flow of potential migrants coming to France in the hope of entering Britain, and less security cooperation. The present arrangement works better in screening potential migrants and refugees, however unfair it may seem to France.

France is one of only two nuclear powers in the EU (the departing UK being the other), and has the world’s sixth largest defense budget, with military spending of over $55 billion (2016). Its forces have vast military experience in the African continent, with a historically interventionist role in former colonies. French troops have military presence and experience in Mali, Central African Republique, Chad, Cote d’Ivore, and Djibouti, and also spearheaded the intervention and no-fly zone against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya in 2011. The motivations behind these missions have been varied, but all have to some degree been designed to bolster French influence in the region – commonly referred to as ‘Françafrique’. However, President Macron has indicated that he will move away from playing kingmaker in Africa and instead focus on bolstering democracies and fighting extremism. This will build on the already significant French contribution to operations in Iraq and Syria. In addition, he has followed the lead of other candidates by pledging to maintain France’s prominent military role, continuing France’s distinctive Gaullist tradition of global power projection and independent foreign policy. Therefore, the President has proposed to increase defense spending to a modest 2% of GDP from 1.8%, while Ms. Le Pen planned to increase defense spending to 3% of GDP and reintroduce compulsory military service. The continued mayhem in Libya and rising Islamist threats in Mali and other former French colonies means the French military’s role in the region is likely to persist in the long-term. Ensuring that public opinion for military intervention does not sour in France and abroad will be a political challenge for President Macron.

In keeping with his commitment to EU integration, President Macron has supported EU military cooperation. He has called for the formation of EU joint military structures and greater EU participation in major international operations such as those in Iraq and Syria. EU military integration and better defense spending by nation-states, such as that envisioned by the EU defense fund and the establishment of the EU military headquarters, heed the White House’s call for European countries to take greater responsibility for their security. President Macron has maintained that France should also remain a vital component of NATO, unlike his main opponent Ms. Le Pen, who suggested withdrawal from NATO’s command structure. The President’s particular road plan for EU military cooperation has not been articulated and may yet prove difficult to implement given internal difference of opinion in the EU.

During her campaign, Ms. Le Pen proposed that France withdraw from NATO and move towards rapprochement with Russia. But, just prior to the election, En Marche’s campaign was hacked and its contents posted online along with a plethora of fake documents, in a move which cyber-security watchdogs linked to Russian state information warfare. Sources close to President Macron state that this has hardened the President’s position towards Russia. A stronger EU with a united Franco-German front is a definite strategic loss for Russia, and only adds to public outrage over Russian links with the White House that has paralyzed any further public rapprochement between President Trump and President Putin. Mr Putin’s uneasy congratulatory message to President Macron reflected this unstable position.

President Macron’s win points to a new, unprecedented direction in French politics, with both of the dominant parties in France – the Socialists and Republicans – not making it to the second round of Presidential elections. However, President Macron has far from won the mandate to implement reforms, with the legislative elections looming in June. In order to win this majority, he will have to address France’s pressing security crisis in a coherent manner. As his emphasis towards focusing on the roots of any crisis indicates, this will involve a holistic road-plan for domestic reforms, foreign intervention and EU cooperation.


Image: Bastille Day military parade (Source: Marie-Lan Nguyen)

About Kalyani Subbiah

Kalyani Subbiah is currently a Masters student of Development Studies at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. She has previously interned with her institute's China Studies Centre, authoring a special report on China's 'One Belt One Road' initiative. Her research interests include international development and aid flows, China in global politics, Russia and NATO, and the Middle East.