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France - Foreign Relations

The political class and many voters have long worried about France's relative decline in power and influence – the ominous "déclassement" – in an increasingly globalised world. This tendency is seen by many analysts as part of the explanation for strong support for the far-right party of Marine Le Pen, whose rhetoric is tinged with nostalgia for the past. Since World War II, French governments have always had a strong industrial policy which has seen the promotion and protection of national champions to rival "les anglo-saxons" in Britain and America.

President Emmanuel Macron made clear that vigorous French engagement on the world stage would be a priority of his administration, declaring in no uncertain terms that “France is back.” And he had largely succeeded in reversing France’s waning influence after just a year in office, according to Christian Lequesne, a specialist in French foreign policy at Sciences Po university in Paris. “We went from being a country in decline to a country that’s moving forward, full of energy.”

Pushing for a resurgence in the use of the French language worldwide emerged as one facet of Macron’s bid to expand Gallic influence. On his November 2017 trip to Burkina Faso, Macron appealed to young Africans not to reject French in favour of English, predicting that the language of Molière would be making a comeback. "To refuse the French language in order to make English fashionable on the African continent is to be blind to the future," Macron said. "If we go about it right, France will be the first language in Africa – and maybe even the world – in the coming decades.” This linguistic revival was in the pipeline. In March 2018 he unveiled a strategy for promoting the French language globally, particularly in Africa.

The International Francophone Organisation (Organisation internationale de la Francophonie) estimates that the number of French speakers in the world will surpass 700 million by 2050 as a result of population growth, and 80 percent of them will be in Africa. The proportion of French speakers would correspondingly rise from 3 percent to 8 percent of the global population.

In his first-ever annual address to France's 170 ambassadors in August 2017, Macron reiterated plans to keep the African continent at the core of his foreign policy, stating his conviction that “the future of the world will largely be played out in Africa". He has also established a new Presidential Council for Africa, whose 11 inaugural members will advise him on African issues and help him prepare for visits to the continent.

Since World War II, France has played a leading international role, transforming itself from an major colonial power to the earliest and strongest advocate of European integration, as well as a strong supporter of broader international cooperation. France's most important bilateral tie since the 1960s has been with Germany. France views Franco-German cooperation, as well as the development of an independent European defense capability, as the keys to enhanced European security. In the mid-1990s, relations between Paris and Berlin became somewhat strained when German reunification altered the two countries' balance and Germany's leaders were less prepared than their predecessors to subordinate Germany's interests to French political leadership. Germany also sought to reduce its contributions to the European Union (EU) budget, a large share of which goes to subsidizing French agriculture. The two countries, leaving aside such frictions, took a common stand in opposing U.S.-led military action against Iraq in 2003.

In 1949 France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a regional defense alliance led by the trans-Atlantic partners. France has relied on NATO ever since, while also insisting on a degree of independence in military affairs. In 1966 France, wanting sole control of its nuclear weapons, withdrew its forces from NATO's integrated military command structure, while remaining a member of NATO's political councils. In 1995 France rejoined the military structure and has since worked actively to adapt NATO - internally and externally - to the post-Cold War environment. France is one of the major contributors to the NATO Reaction Force and, with about 4,000 troops, is the second largest member-state contributor to NATO operations, on a par with Italy and after Germany. Two French generals commanded the two major NATO forces, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan and Kosovo Forces (KFOR).

France's involvement with NATO did not prevented French leaders from formulating plans to create an exclusively European integrated military force as a security supplement to relieve NATO from participating in some regional crises. France and the European Union (EU) in general do not currently have the capabilities necessary to create forces independent of NATO. However, France firmly backed strengthening the security arm of the EU and is a strong advocate of the 60,000-strong Rapid Reaction Force (RRF), to which France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (UK) are to be the major contributors. France also supports the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other efforts at cooperation. In order to advance the creation of a European defense identity, France seeks to enhance the coordination of the French defense industry within a European framework and to give a more European dimension to nuclear deterrence, still the cornerstone of French defense strategy. Working with other European countries, most notably Germany and the UK, France has long supported naval cooperation and agreed in 2004 to set up joint battle groups.

France’s return to the integrated command structure of NATO in 2009 prompted calls for a relaunch of European defence and for a renewal of relations between France and NATO. France’s objective in rejoining NATO was to reinforce both European defence and NATO. A stronger Europe would make for a stronger and more credible Alliance, in which the European countries assume their responsibilities to the full. In his report on the consequences of France’s return to the NATO integrated command structure, submitted to the President on 14 November 2012, Hubert Védrine stressed the need for France to maximise its influence within the Alliance and its efforts to reinforce European defence, working with its main European partners but without in any way calling into question the decision reached in 2009.

The decision by British voters on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union raised the question of whether France could one day follow suit in a "Frexit." Marine Le Pen, the head of France's far-right National Front party, had campaigned for years for her country to leave the 28-member grouping. The results in Britain offer a powerful affirmation of Le Pen’s anti-immigration, anti-Europe arguments, less than a year before French presidential elections. Conservative politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, who heads the tiny Debout la France (France Arise) party, predicts the bloc is in a “terminal phase,” while far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon calls for ‘changing it or leaving’ it. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy, who headed the center-right Republicans party, wants a new European treaty, while others want an overhaul of its institutions and purpose.

A June 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center in Washington found 61 percent of French view the EU unfavorably — markedly higher than among Britons (48 percent). Many also disapprove of the way Brussels handled issues like immigration and the economy. Surveys showed that however disillusioned French may feel about Brussels, they’re not ready to leave it. A TNS Sofres-Onepoint poll found that 45 percent backed remaining in the bloc, while one-third supported leaving. Another 22 percent were undecided.

Meanwhile, France’s deeply unpopular leader took the opposite path, investing his shrinking political capital in Brussels. While acknowledging the EU needs reforming, President Francois Hollande rejected calls for a French referendum, saying the 2017 election would serve that purpose.

In other regions of the world, France plays a significant role through commercial activities, extensive development assistance programs, and defense agreements. French influence is especially strong in francophone Africa and to a lesser extent in the Arab world. In the Middle East, France has been active in urging the establishment of a Palestinian state through a multilateral peace process and has provided significant assistance to the Palestinian Authority. France also has significant commercial and political relations in East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as growing participation in regional organizations there. In Southeast Asia, France was an architect of the 1991 Paris Accords, which ended the conflict in Cambodia. In China, France is currently stepping up commercial competition with U.S. business. In Latin America, France has actively backed efforts to restore democracy to Haiti.

Spreading the French language is a priority for French diplomacy. French, with 220 million speakers, shares with English the distinction of being the only two languages spoken and taught on all five continents. French is ranked as the sixth most widely spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese (over a billion speakers), English, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, and ahead of Portuguese (between 178 and 240 million speakers). French is taught in education systems the world over, making it the second most widely studied foreign language after English with close on 120 million students and 500,000 French teachers outside France.

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Page last modified: 30-06-2021 12:04:38 ZULU