Emmanuel Macron and the art of tantrum diplomacy

26 September 2021

9:47 AM

26 September 2021

9:47 AM

France’s fit of pique following Australia’s cancelled submarine contract – and the signing of the Aukus pact – is a sulk that keeps on giving. After recalling its ambassadors to Australia and the US, Paris cancelled last week’s scheduled bilateral Franco-British defence summit. France is also reported to be seeking to delay the EU-Australia trade deal whose twelfth meeting was organised for next month.

The French are all the more bruised for the major powers in the Indo Pacific – Japan and India – welcoming the Pact while Paris has received only muted support from EU members. France is even extending her sulk retrospectively to others who recently declined French defence products. Le Monde reported that the planned November visit of the Swiss Confederation president to Paris was cancelled in retaliation for Switzerland rejecting a contract to buy French Rafale fighter aircraft in favour of American F-35s.

With France about to take over the presidency of the EU for six months, Macron will use that role to punish those member and non member states that in his view have crossed him. Belgium may be next, for it too preferred F-35s to its French rival. So what is the root of this tantrum diplomacy and what is it seeking to achieve post-Aukus?

While not having a monopoly of tantrum diplomacy, France performs well on this front. It stems from three things; historical divisions, fulsome national pride and an indefatigable belief in the French way of doing things. When the latter two are crossed, the reaction is all but diplomatic. In the nineteenth century the great historian and observer of nations Alexis de Tocqueville explained France’s need to be involved in great enterprises as necessary to counter the centrifugal forces of political and material division. In 1840 he told John Stuart Mill:

‘National pride is our greatest remaining sentiment’

In the twentieth century, General de Gaulle famously tapped into its potency as a unifier of the French declaring that France could only be France if she was in the front rank.

The Aukus deal was guaranteed to produce a backlash from the French, all the more so for it being conceived and executed brutally by what de Gaulle always referred to wryly as the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. Looking at today’s bitter reaction among the French political class and media of left and right few would disagree with the view of the nineteenth century French revolutionary Louis Blanc:

‘The principle of egotism is incarnate in the English people, the principle of devotion in the French people. England has set foot in no country without setting up its counting-houses. France has nowhere passed without leaving the perfume of her spirituality’ 

Emmanuel Macron’s historical acumen, and his yearning to don the mantle of de Gaulle at a time of acute national divisions, was never going to let the Anglosphere’s protagonists get away with a ‘stab in the back’. What he wished for, and still does, is that the Anglosphere sign up to his Indo-Pacific strategy, which in all fairness, was established several years before Aukus. With poignant historical irony, France’s Aukus diplomatic tantrum recalls, in reverse, features of de Gaulle’s 1966 withdrawal from Nato’s integrated command.

On returning to power in 1958, president de Gaulle was adamant France should gain greater say in what he saw as an Anglo-Saxon dominated Nato. When the USA refused to supply France with the latest strategic submarines in 1959 he withdrew the French Mediterranean fleet from Nato command.

When that failed to produce the right result he notified the allies in September 1965 that France would withdraw all its forces from Nato command, claiming that France could no longer rely on an American-dominated organisation. The incremental vice tightened again on 7 March 1966 when de Gaulle instructed his principal allies to withdraw all 26,000 troops stationed in France by 1 July 1967, together with all Nato military organisations and commands. American secretary of state Dean Rusk enquired witheringly whether that included American troops buried in France having fought for the country’s liberation.

France reintegrated Nato’s military command in 2009. After Aukus, many in the political class called on Macron again to withdraw. But as a former international investment banker cutting deals with large ‘Anglo-saxon’ banks, he is attuned to ‘Anglo-saxon’ pragmatism and the historical examples of the effectiveness of tantrum diplomacy.

Following France’s 1966 snubbing of her allies, there was no vindictiveness towards France for her Nato ‘Frexit’, despite it weakening the Western alliance. France was even able to cherry pick what it retained of Nato benefits: membership of the Atlantic Council and above all continued use of Nato’s sophisticated early warning system Nadge.

But expect more pique and gesture diplomacy as a French tactic for getting her way. French ministers and LREM senior party figures have taken to the media to declare that further retaliatory measures be taken. At the forthcoming Nato plenary session on future strategy in Madrid, France will be particularly vocal in requesting greater autonomy for Nato’s European dimension. Despite Macron’s restorative phone calls from Biden and Johnson he will continue with the tantrum diplomacy until he gets his way on Aukus and Nato.

But Macron must not overplay his hand, as he is wont to do in domestic and international politics. The Aukus founders most likely want France to sign up. The UK and US are happy for a greater degree of European ‘strategic autonomy’, if it is through Nato. But he must not push his truculence too far.

Ironically the backlash could come from that arena that Macron perceives hubristically as his ‘back yard’ – the EU. He takes over its presidency on 1 January, when Germany may not even have a government in place, and will pursue his agenda. But a coalition is building, inside the EU, against him in central Europe around the Visegrad group, most of whom are very attached to American friendship and a strong Nato.

And outside the EU a caucus of antagonised nations is also forming. On 26 May, the Swiss withdrew from negotiations with the Commission on a new partnership after Berne refused to sign up to the EU’s freedom of movement demands.

Macron has decided to punish Berne for that and the refusal to buy French fighters. But president Macron should beware. He should know that when the French seek to use Europe for their own ends counter-coalitions grow very rapidly.

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