President Emmanuel Macron of France is both visible and effective in international relations, filling at least in part the vacuum from absence of American leadership. Last month, for example, he made a dramatic speech with an ambitious vision for a stronger, assertive European Union (EU). French troops help anti-insurgent efforts in Africa, including Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.
Macron won election last May with just over 66 percent of the vote, a remarkable achievement. He overcame relative obscurity plus earlier association with unpopular Socialist President François Hollande.
Macron’s moderate stance was vital. An important contributing factor was widespread anxiety regarding far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen and her extremist associates.
While France’s elections generate heated rhetoric and colorful confrontations, the nation’s foreign policies are of greater external importance. Americans should remember that from the beginning France has been among our most significant allies.
During the American Revolution, Benjamin Franklin played an historic role in wooing and winning French public as well as royal opinion. This led to crucial military as well as financial assistance.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, French aircraft joined those of other NATO allies in patrolling the skies over North America. The struggle against international terrorist groups remains a comprehensive collective enterprise, authorized and supported by the United Nations as well as the NATO alliance. This commitment has transcended party lines in France.
However, during the Cold War, France often pursued an independent course in foreign policy. This was the case especially after General Charles de Gaulle, the great leader of Free France during World War II, returned to power as president in 1958. France appeared to be politically both weak and unstable, widely viewed as verging on the collapse of effective government.
After returning to power, he skillfully employed a three-pronged strategy involving foreign policy, image, and institutions. His remarkable career and personality permitted him to appeal simultaneously to French traditions of monarchy, nationalism and democracy. He appeared imperious, yet resorted to popular referenda.
De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, including a new constitution granting great institutional power to the president. He rebuilt French self-confidence through emphasis on the “force de frappe,” the independent national nuclear deterrent, plus diplomacy. The nuclear force became a dramatic symbol of pride and independence.
Except for Britain, a special partner, the U.S. has consistently opposed development of nuclear weapons by other nations. The Kennedy administration was aggressive and at times abrasive in pressing this policy on France and others.
De Gaulle came to power during the Eisenhower administration, during which such clashes were avoided. President Dwight Eisenhower was more tolerant of policy ambiguities, in hindsight remarkably shrewd.
While planning the Allied invasion of France during World War II, some American and British air commanders argued against heavy bombing that would kill many French civilians. General Eisenhower turned to General de Gaulle for support. Both deemed such bombing essential for success.
De Gaulle urged U.S. leaders against direct military involvement in Vietnam, given France’s disastrous colonial war. They ignored him.
In 1966, de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO. In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy returned France to the alliance.
Diplomatically, France occupies a strong position. Britain is in bitter, confused debate about leaving the EU. Germany’s history dictates a cautious approach to overseas involvement. Nationalist de Gaulle nonetheless would approve of Macron’s assertion of French leadership in the current context.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact at firstname.lastname@example.org.