Tim Felce
Rafale (RIAT 2009) by Tim Felce (Airwolfhound)

French gunboat diplomacy: taking the lead, or leading astray?

France is spearheading European hard power in the Mediterranean Sea, following its pledge to turn the Union into a “sovereign” global player who provides its own security, and does not shy away from hard power. While the move is arguably timely, France must be careful not to alienate the rest of the continent.

October 06, 2020

By : Julian Vierlinger

Invoking the possible end of NATO has, by now, ceased to shock anyone but the pact’s own public relations unit. However, there is a potential for awe when the narrative finds its way to a UN General Assembly while naval forces of the second (France) and forth (Turkey) strongest members of the pact are literally taking aim at each other in the Eastern Mediterranean. Yet, in a session dominated by Chinese-American exchanges of incivilities, President Macron’s comments on the necessary redefinition of the “grammar of peace” went largely unnoticed. In what seems to be a no-nonsense reply to the Turkish MFA Çavuşoğlu’s recent comments (“There is no need for such hysterical behaviour from France, it makes them look laughable. We are two NATO member countries.”), the Frenchman’s speech alternated between arguing that the NATO world order had dismantled itself, and ensuring that Europe is busy thinking alternatives which could ensure both its security and “sovereignty” in the world. In a rare degree of explicit insistence, Macron proclaimed that “I want to be very clear when I say that we will not delegate our collective security to powers other than Europe.”

France’s ongoing naval presence to the Eastern Mediterranean, as part of the ongoing maritime boundary dispute between Greece and Turkey, is indeed a hard-hitting example that Macron means business. The initial, rapid response deployment of military vessels had been upgraded to a full blown naval exercise assembling not only Greece, Cyprus and France, but also Italy — a move that Michael Tanchum commented to be a “major reset in Italy’s Mediterranean policy“, thinking of France and Italy’s complicated recent history in Libya . The name given to these un-humorous war-games, Eumonia, speaks volumes: translatable from ancient Greek as “good order”, it is also the name of the Greek goddess of legislation. In a way, the four countries appear to attempt a novel approach to the age-old European problem of having one’s law-abiding, idealist stance ignored by power-maximising rogue states, by coating normative convictions and soft power methods in the hardened steel of their warships. At any rate, the move comes as a radical novelty to question of collective European defence policy — a question where positions appear to be increasingly entrenched, ironically above all between France and Germany. Armies are made on the battlefield, as Pericles is credited with saying; and even if for now there is perhaps no reason to fear a great Mediterranean war (and thankfully so — at the time of publication of this text Turkey and Greece have agreed to enter negotiations), the current spectacle could be regarded as a first instance of the EU defending its territorial integrity — and thus, by some definition, its sovereignty.

By the same token could the fast-lane arms deal which saw Paris exporting four French made frigates, four naval assault helicopters, and 18 Dassault Rafale fighter jets to the Hellenic Armed Forces be understood as proof that France is seeking to sustainably deepen European defence integration on a hardware level. While the connection between EU defence autonomy and the necessity of ensuring independence from American defence suppliers is in no need of further elaboration, the move however shows a dangerous weakness in the Elysée’s method of rallying around the Brussels banner: the grounds it gives to speculations that Macron’s aim is not to assemble Europe around a European defence interest, but rather to use Europe to enforce France’s interest in the region – of which there are plenty. Suffices to recall the last recipient of similar scale French arms exports in the region, Egypt. Between 2015 and 2020, France effectively supplied the Egyptian armed forces with enough material to execute an invasion. Apart from purely commercial interests (which would, given General Sissi’s bad track record of human rights abuses, suffice to reprimand France), the move had straightforward political motivations. In July 2020, then, Egypt’s parliament approved troop deployment to Libya — a territory where Egyptian and French interests were (at least at the time) well aligned. France and Egypt’s support of the renegade warlord Khalifa Haftar, who after crushing the Libyan branch of Daesh turned his guns towards the UN-recognized (no pun intended) Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, was widely criticised — especially due to the worsening reports of Haftar’s troops committing serious abuses against civilians. France’s affair with the Libyan general was widely understood to be intrinsically linked with the interests of its energy champion, Total; an interest that appeared to trump over considerations of international law. Ironically, this gave Turkey — who was supporting the GNA against Haftar — the possibility to call out Macron for ignoring UN decisions, and thus international law. Indeed, the episode did not speak in favour of France as the legion of Eumonia.

France’s Libyan adventures were, however, not only a thorn in the eye of international lawyers, but also in the heart of its Mediterranean ally, Italy. Italy’s energy champion, Eni, had a sustained interest to see Libya’s GNA not lose control over its fields. Oddly enough, this pitted Italy together with Turkey against Haftar, and thus, against France. In a streak of high grade diplomatic marksmanship, France and Total managed to resolve the situation, the former by effectively cutting ties with Haftar, and the latter by calming Eni’s energy anxieties by establishing a network of concessions and cooperations along the Libyan oil and gas fields. By going against not only a UN result, but also the majority of EUMS opinions on Libya and Haftar, France had played a fuse which could have blown up the very fundamental premise of the collective defence policy it is trying to construct: the idea that Europe has indeed a common defence interest. This time it managed to pull out the fuse by realigning a key European interest with its own, and by “straightening out” its commitments to international law. However, there are more and more grounds for superstition, and for doubt into Macron’s grand project of European sovereignty. The coming vote on sanctions on Turkey will show whether France, by gun boating the Mediterranean, has taken lead of European defence policy, or lead the Eumonians astray.


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