Macron greenlights military budget boost, but what is he aiming for?
Emmanuel Macron, whose presidency is mired in political rows at home, recently approved a bulky military plan in which more money will be spent on foreign missions. Is he becoming an interventionist, and what is it all about?
French President Emmanuel Macron, a photogenic liberal who promised to fix the stagnating economy and rising unemployment, among other domestic problems, when he entered Elysee Palace, is now focusing on the military. By approving a massive €200bn ($233.5bn) military budget plan for the next five years, Macron has reversed years of defense spending cuts. A new programme signed in July means the budget is set to grow by almost €1.7bn a year until 2023, going beyond Macron's presidential term, and by €3bn afterwards.
Military hardware and foreign deployments now top France's military bookkeeping. The French Army will see a twofold increase in overseas missions spending, from the current €650mn to €1.1bn starting in 2020. Among other types of heavy weaponry, the troops will also take delivery of over a hundred upgraded Leclerc tanks, 733 VBL armored vehicles, and 34 NH-90 utility helicopters.
The French Navy – one of the most capable among the US' European allies – will get four brand new Barracuda-class nuclear-powered submarines, as well as three cutting-edge FREMM-type frigates and 18 modernized long-range patrol aircraft. The budget did not leave the air force out – they will receive 28 Rafale fighters, 11 A330 MRTT flying tankers, and 11 A400M cargo planes.
A couple of questions come to mind: Is this simply a routine upgrade, or the prelude to France becoming a more assertive military actor in the world? And, does France's bulky military budget have something to do with Donald Trump's calls to NATO allies to spend two percent of GDP on defense?
Keep US close, but former colonies closer
Macron "tries to ensure that France maintains very close partnership with the US, but I'd also say to some extent Macron is trying to deflect attention from domestic affairs," Dr. David Lees, senior teaching fellow in French studies at the University of Warwick, told RT.
"By spending more money on defense, by trying to increase the [military] budget, he's not only achieving his goal of ensuring France is one of the US' close partners, but he's also sending a very clear signal to his allies and friends across the world, as well as, of course, his enemies," he said.
The French president, who rarely touched upon the issue of foreign deployments at the start of his presidency, "will now be putting more emphasis on 'la Francophonie', or the French-speaking world" – a modern reference to former colonies and Paris-administered territories, Lees said. Increased defense spending might be employed "to dominate the French-speaking world," which is one of Macron's top priorities.
The French military will take a look at Chad, where it has already taken part in a number of interventions, as well as Mali, a venue of ongoing French operations against Islamists. But aside from France's former African dependencies, "there is potential, of course, that Macron will look to Syria and look to the issues in Syria as a way to potentially ensure that the French Army deploys more in Syria in the future."
Syria does not seem entirely out of range for France's foreign policy ambitions. In 2017 and 2018, France joined a US-led 'coalition of the willing' to bomb Syrian Army targets, although its contribution was suspiciously small. However, Lees believes Macron is a pragmatist" who would "try to ensure some kind of peaceful solution in Syria rather than a military one."
Imperialist past, imperialist future?
Sergey Fedorov, a researcher on France at the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Europe, said the situation must be viewed in the historical context. "France has always pursued [an] independent policy and considered itself a great military power.
"This is actually the case as [the] French military is the largest in Europe – along with the British," he said, adding that France is also one of the few nuclear countries that develops and builds its own weapons of mass destruction and carriers, including missiles, submarines, and aircraft.
Lees is largely in agreement with Fedorov on this point. "The French people enjoy the idea of being seen to be strong on the world stage, and the French traditionally support the position of being a strong and independent nation."
Ramping up defense spending is a win-win for Macron, who knows the French public has always favored having a strong standing in the world, according to Lees. It will also serve to ease tensions between Macron and French military leaders, which reached a peak last year when General Pierre de Villiers, France's highest ranking military chief, had to resign following public bickering with the president over budget cuts.
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