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Macron’s Slow but Bold U-Turn on Ukraine

PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron missed the boat on Ukraine.

Faced with Russia’s military build-up and subsequent invasion of its neighbor, Macron dove down a rabbit hole of fruitless talks with Vladimir Putin. At a moment when he could have taken the helm as the leader of Europe, he miscalculated and failed to seize the political initiative.

Instead, in Europe, it was the likes of the Euroskeptic British premier Boris Johnson who took the lead on rallying support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and providing arms. While Johnson was a hero in Kyiv, Macron infuriated the Ukrainians by insisting that Putin should not be humiliated and suggesting that Moscow deserved “security guarantees.” Ukraine, the French president said, was “in all likelihood decades” from joining the EU.

But a sea change has taken place in Paris since. The French president has now picked up the mantle as one of Ukraine’s strongest allies, pledging support “until victory,” seeking to lead on issues such as NATO membership and military support, just as Europeans fret that U.S. support is flagging, with increasing concerns that a potential Donald Trump presidency could deprive Ukraine of its most important ally.

“Macron was fixated by the idea of playing a mediation role between Putin and Zelenskyy. And this meant he was extremely prudent when it came to arms deliveries,” François Heisbourg, senior adviser to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said. But early this year “Macron finally understood that Putin was taking him for a ride, and wasn’t interested in negotiating,” he added.

French diplomats, however, won’t go further than to say the president “has clarified” his position on Ukraine.

Where the French have broken most significantly from their long-standing position is on the issue of EU enlargement. Beyond the war in Ukraine, France is now seeking new allies, wants to lead on enlargement and is war-gaming how an enlarged EU would work. There is frenetic diplomatic activity behind closed doors in Paris and beyond. The French government is leading consultations and testing red lines ahead of a big speech Macron is set to give early next year, setting out his ambitions for enlargement that has already been dubbed “Sorbonne bis,” according to several French officials, in a reference to a policy-setting Europe speech Macron gave at the Sorbonne University in 2017.

Change of heart

For months following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year, the French president appeared to zig-zag on how to deal with Russia. Putin was a personality he had struggled to read. In a 2019 interview with the Economist, Macron mapped out a picture of how he reckoned a logical Putin would ultimately come to the realization that he would need to form “a partnership project with Europe.” It was a generous vision of Putin’s mindset that underestimated the gnawing historical primacy of the Ukraine question.

In December last year, Macron’s U-turn started to become more evident. He gave a forceful speech saying he would support Ukraine “until victory.” Only a couple of weeks earlier he had stated that the West should give Russia “security guarantees.”

In May this year, Macron hinted at a new awareness, telling Central and Eastern Europeans in Bratislava that he believed France “had sometimes wasted opportunities,” and failed to listen to their memories of Soviet brutality. 

That same month, France gave the U.K. permission to export Franco-British Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine, which was followed by deliveries of French long-range SCALP-EG cruise missiles. According to Heisbourg, it was a decisive signal, because France was doing what the U.S. has so far refused to do.

But Macron’s previous diplomatic serenades toward Putin have left their mark. According to a French diplomat, Macron “shot himself in the foot” in making too many overtures to Moscow, telling reporters that “Russia should not be humiliated.” In the early months of the war, “it overshadowed what we did do, the military support, the European unity,” said the diplomat who like others quoted here was granted anonymity to talk candidly about a sensitive matter. Another French diplomat put it more bluntly: “Macron missed his Churchillian moment.”

Macron’s government is now firing on multiple fronts in favor of Ukraine: EU enlargement, military support and NATO. This month, the French presidency announced they were opening talks with Ukraine to sign a bilateral security agreement following the NATO summit in Vilnius.

“We are not naïve, we took a big step … but we are not kidding ourselves that people will think France has changed overnight,” said a third French diplomat.

Speeding up on enlargement

As recently as 2019, Macron was opposed to opening membership talks with North Macedonia and Albania.

“France has never been anti-enlargement, but it has always been prudent about it,” said Georgina Wright, Europe director at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne. “France has always said the EU must deepen before it can widen, because there was a fear by enlarging the EU would become more dysfunctional,” she said.

But in a recent speech, Macron called for “boldness” in embracing enlargement, floating the idea of a “multispeed Europe” to keep up the drive toward greater integration.

For France, the change is also set against the realization that the Balkans and Moldova — not just Ukraine — are on the front lines of a hybrid war against Russia.

“There’s a real awakening that we are on the eve of a historic moment, similar to the Fall of the Berlin Wall, with a new wave of EU enlargement …which will help stabilize the Continent,” said Benjamin Haddad, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party.  

But the change of heart may also boil down to some hard-nosed political calculus. France’s initial diplomatic initiatives with Putin alienated Central and Eastern Europeans. With talk of the center of gravity shifting eastward, France needs support beyond its traditional allies such as Germany, Italy and Spain, if it wants to influence the change it now sees as inevitable.

Getting political

With the European election looming next year, France is gearing up for a battle of opposing visions, between Europhiles arguing the EU protects citizens and populists shining a spotlight on the Union’s failings.

In France, where the far-right National Rally is riding high in the polls, and most recently the former French President Nicolas Sarkozy slammed ambitions to bring Ukraine into the Union — an anti-enlargement position held by several French political heavyweights before him — the fight is expected to be bloody.

Haddad says his camp will argue that the EU, even enlarged, will protect citizens against the upheavals of the world: the war in Ukraine, “a predatory China,” and a possible Trump presidency. “If the far right had been in power … Russia would be occupying all of Ukraine,” he said.

But what may also undermine Macron’s new drive is what Heisbourg calls “the temptation towards mediation,” adding that the French president failed to recall France’s policy on Taiwan during a visit to Beijing, in a bid to get China to play a mediation role with Russia.

“This temptation makes our partners skeptical despite the real and profound change [in France], the fear is that we might return to our old ways,” he added.

Source : politico