Strategic Posture Review: France

A rather small country by its size and population—65 million, less than 1 percent of total global population—France is nevertheless one of five to 10 countries that can claim to be major powers in today’s world.

The French economy is, however, plagued with sluggish growth, an unemployment level now hovering around 10 percent of the active population, a budget that has been in deficit for more than three decades and a public debt that represents more than 90 percent of its GDP—with more than 60 percent of that debt held by nonresidents, as opposed to about 30 percent for the U.S. and the U.K. France has a high level of taxes (46 percent of GDP) and public spending (56 percent), including for welfare programs. Its public sector is often referred to as bloated and includes multiple layers of local government. The country has recurring debates about its identity, in particular over immigration and the place of Islam in French society—for which “laicite,” a strong brand of secularism, is a key principle—as well as France’s possible “decline.”

At the same time, France continues to enjoy significant structural advantages in its international posture.

The country is both a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and a nuclear weapon state recognized under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The number of French-speakers worldwide is rising, and the French-speaking world remains an important asset for Paris. There is a continuing special relationship between France and Africa, with annual France-Africa summits. And despite the enlargement of the European Union, Paris is still at the strategic crossroads of Europe: The German-French partnership remains indispensable to determining EU economic policy, while the U.K.-France partnership is critical for European security policy decisions.

Paris also has assets that only Washington and London can otherwise claim. It has a worldwide presence through overseas possessions, giving it the world’s second-largest maritime domain, with 3 percent of the world total. France’s overseas territories of varying statuses and degrees of autonomy, including the “shared sovereignty” of New Caledonia, ensure a French presence in North America, the Caribbean, South America, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean. Paris also maintains a vast diplomatic network—the second largest in the world—as well as nine permanent military bases outside Europe. France has military experience and know-how covering all major areas of warfare. It is the fifth-largest financial contributor to the United Nations and the fourth-biggest contributor of public development aid.

France is the most popular tourist destination in the world. Its culture and arts are universally admired. Its demographics remain vibrant. It has the world’s fifth-largest GDP (accounting for 4 percent of world total) and volume of exports (accounting for 3.4 percent of world trade), is the second-largest agricultural exporter and the fourth-largest arms exporter. Its success in high-tech research and development is noteworthy. Some of its industries are among the world’s leaders, and France has the fourth-highest number of firms in the Fortune 500 index. Major areas of excellence include aerospace and defense; energy; services such as banking, insurance and retail; construction; transport; and luxury goods, fashion and cosmetics.

France’s system of government, the Fifth Republic established in 1958, is a hybrid political regime that includes a strong, directly elected president and a government theoretically accountable to a weak parliament, the National Assembly. Both the president and the National Assembly are now simultaneously elected for a five-year term, making “cohabitation”—where different parties control the presidency and the National Assembly—possible, even though the president retains the constitutional power to dissolve the National Assembly. The prime minister is nominally the head of the parliamentary majority and the government, but in fact functions more or less as the president’s super chief of staff. The country is much less centralized now than it was in the past—there have been successive devolutions of powers to local authorities since 1983—and France maintains a tradition of relatively efficient state governance and public service.

In 2012, the political left gained control of all France’s major levers of institutional power, including the Senate, for the first time since 1958.

Foreign and Defense Policy Overview

Due to the nature of France’s political system, the executive branch—and in particular the president—enjoys wide latitude of action when it comes to foreign and defense policy.

Modern France’s foreign and defense policies have undergone what could be called two “revolutionary” phases, each lasting about a decade. The first lasted from 1957 to 1967, beginning with the signature of the European treaties, which committed Paris to an economic union with other European nations. But Gaullism is what most imprinted the decade. President Charles de Gaulle was instrumental in laying the foundations of modern French foreign policy, through France’s spectacular reconciliation with Germany; its development of an independent nuclear force and withdrawal from NATO; the acceleration of decolonization; and a policy of reaching out to developing and nonaligned countries. Throughout that decade, France’s relations with the United States were a mixture of defiance in peacetime and solidarity during major crises, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

A second critical phase in France’s foreign and defense policy was the decade from 1991 to 2001, which opened with the unification of Germany; the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union; and the revitalization of the United Nations. Paris sought the creation of a European political, economic and monetary union, though it accepted the union’s enlargement to Eastern Europe only grudgingly, while making it clear, starting around 1995, that the union should not be a competitor to NATO. France adopted a policy of military interventionism in support of the U.N., as in Iraq in 1991, and NATO, as in the Balkans, for crisis stabilization and the protection of populations. Indeed, France was instrumental in promoting the idea of a “right to interfere” in a state’s internal affairs for humanitarian reasons. France abolished conscription in 1997 and professionalized its armed forces. Finally, France ratified the NPT during that phase of its foreign policy.

From a strategic standpoint, France in 2013 appears much closer to the United Kingdom than it is to Germany. In 2008, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy decided that France would rejoin the NATO military command structure. His successor, Francois Hollande, elected in May 2012, has not fundamentally altered the basics of French foreign and defense policy, despite being the first Socialist president in office since 1995, when Jacques Chirac replaced Francois Mitterrand. These policy basics include commitments to work toward a “multipolar” world governed by “multilateralism”; to deepen European integration; to remain a staunch ally of the United States while conducting an independent foreign policy; and to intervene whenever necessary in support of the international order, the protection of populations and the defense of European and French interests.

French foreign policy, which rests on the second-largest diplomatic network in the world after the United States and a strong presence in multilateral institutions, can be described as having three simultaneous areas of focus: Europe, the continent’s neighborhood and the global scene.

The European Level

The continuation and deepening of the European project remains a core French ambition, even though the 2005 rejection of the European “Constitution” sowed trauma among the French elite, and the euro crisis has exposed increasing public resistance to further European integration.

Most of France’s foreign trade—some $560 billion in exports and some $675 billion in imports as of 2011—is with other European countries.

The French-German “couple” is still the anchor of France’s European policy, and Germany is by far France’s biggest trading partner. In 2011, French exports to Germany amounted to about $90 billion, and imports from Germany were about $115 billion. The French-German relationship remains deep and close, though Paris seems increasingly uncomfortable with Berlin’s perceived ambition to impose its economic and monetary policies on the rest of Europe.

France’s relationship with the United Kingdom has always been more distant, but in the past 20 years London has nevertheless become Paris’ main strategic partner. The two countries share many common strategic interests: They are both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and recognized nuclear weapon states under the NPT; both maintain strong diplomatic networks and overseas possessions; and both are keen to intervene militarily when national or global interests are threatened.

Even though the enlargement of the European Union has made France’s place in Europe less central than it was in the past, Paris sees itself as being geographically and culturally in between Northern and Southern Europe. It traditionally enjoys good relations with its immediate neighbors Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg—fellow founding members of the European Community in 1957—as well as Spain and Switzerland.

The Continent’s Neighborhood

Paris believes that the stabilization of Europe’s neighborhood should be a priority for the EU, a concern dating back to the Balkans crises of the 1990s, in which France was a prominent actor. And while it considers Russia a potential adversary for Europe, Paris has traditionally been keen on attempting to anchor Moscow within a broader Euro-Atlantic security framework.

France’s relations in the Middle East vary by country. For historical and geographical reasons, France maintains close ties with Morocco and Tunisia, but its relations with Algeria remain complex and more distant. After a period of hesitation, France has embraced the “Arab Spring,” and it spearheaded the international intervention in Libya in 2011. In the Middle East region, Paris has traditionally given attention to Lebanon and Syria, both former colonies. The France-Israel relationship has had its ups and downs, but with France’s traditional Gaullist-inspired “Arab policy” no longer dominant, the French-Israeli relationship has improved. Finally, since the early 1990s Paris has developed close relations with the Gulf states, notably Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, for strategic and economic reasons.

For historical and economic reasons, including the presence of large French communities, France continues to have privileged relations in sub-Saharan Africa, notably with former French colonies and other French-speaking countries. France-Africa summits are held annually. However, Paris does not support regime stability as a matter of principle anymore, and has refused several times over the past two decades to rescue endangered authoritarian regimes.

The Global Level

France continues to believe that it has global responsibilities, due in particular to its status as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, and also that it can be a force for good defending universal values. France seeks a multipolar world—with one pole being Europe—resting on multilateralism, the rule of international law and the promotion of human rights, as well as a reform of global governance. Paris is one of the major contributors to the institutions of the U.N. system. It is the fifth-largest financial contributor to the U.N. and participates in all significant U.N. operations. It seeks a reform of the UNSC and favors permanent membership for countries such as Brazil, India and Japan.

A nuclear weapon state in the sense of the NPT, France believes that it has a particular responsibility to maintain the nuclear order and promote nonproliferation. It is heavily involved in talks over the Iranian crisis, the success of which is viewed as key to the future of the nuclear nonproliferation regime. Paris is, however, cautious when it comes to embracing the idea of a world without nuclear weapons. It maintains a minimum deterrence posture and has dismantled many of its nuclear facilities, but cautions that a dramatic improvement of global security conditions would be needed for nuclear abolition to be considered.

A founding member of NATO, France has always been keen on maximizing European influence in the organization and has often opposed U.S. initiatives. However, France is also a leading contributor to NATO operations and acknowledges the alliance’s key role in European and global security. While it wants to promote a European security and defense identity, it does not see Europe as a competitor to NATO.

A staunch ally of the United States in matters of collective defense—as apparent in its reaction to the Sept. 11 attacks—Paris maintains mixed relations with Washington. It enjoys an excellent strategic relationship with the United States on a day-to-day basis, but remains wary of excessive U.S. influence on Europe, in political as well as trade and cultural affairs. Though the 2003 face-off between Paris and Washington over Iraq is now a distant memory, France often sees itself as spearheading the promotion of multilateralism and the primacy of international law against the excesses of what it used to call the “hyperpower.”

French diplomacy has heavily invested in developing privileged relations with emerging democratic powers. Paris initiated a strategic partnership with India in 1998 and is seeking major contracts, for fighter aircraft and nuclear power plants, with New Delhi. More recently, in 2006, France concluded a strategic partnership with Brazil, also a major potential customer for the French defense industry, as well as a neighbor to French Guiana. France also enjoys a long-standing good relationship with Japan, but its relationship with South Korea remains underdeveloped.

France’s relations with China are primarily commercial, though Paris regularly criticizes Beijing for human rights violations and keeps a close watch on military developments in Asia.

Finally, the various institutions and annual summit of the 77 French-speaking countries that make up the “francophonie” remain an instrument of cultural influence and political partnership for France.

France’s significant non-European trade partners include the United States and China. Regarding energy, France is less dependent on fossil fuels than many of its Western partners due to its high investment in nuclear power, which generates about 75-80 percent of its electricity; it imports uranium from Australia, Canada, Kazakhstan and Niger. Paris announced in 2012 that it would seek to reduce the share of nuclear-generated electricity to 50 percent, however.

Defense and Security Policy

Absent a direct state-based military threat, French defense posture focuses on two areas. The first is protecting France’s national territory and population against terrorism, natural and industrial disasters, illegal trafficking, hostage-taking and the consequences of domestic troubles abroad. The second is protecting France’s economic interests outside Europe from threats including terrorism and piracy, encroachment on its sovereignty in its exclusive economic zones and infringements on the freedom of navigation.

France also has defense commitments with its European partners under Article 42/7 of the Lisbon Treaty; with its NATO allies under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty; and with Gulf partners under bilateral agreements with Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. France’s security agreements with African partners no longer include a defense clause. France also remains committed to the defense of the Korean Peninsula through the 1953 armistice agreement.

Beyond these obligations, France has, broadly speaking, political ambitions in four different areas: building a European security and defense identity; contributing to the maintenance of international peace and security by acting in accordance with UNSC resolutions; intervening in support of threatened populations abroad and promoting the “responsibility to protect”; and reducing the threat from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons as well as their delivery vehicles.

Geographically speaking, the French security posture focuses on Europe’s environment, notably the Mediterranean area—the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa—the Persian Gulf and sub-Saharan Africa.

The French defense concept adopted in 2008 and confirmed in the 2013 White Paper on Defense and National Security promotes the idea of the inseparable nature of defense and national security due to the nature of current threats. The French defense concept also outlines five strategic priorities: knowledge and anticipation, prevention, nuclear deterrence, intervention and protection.

Over the past 20 years, France has invested massively in intelligence, including through the development of observation satellites, and the country has a long-standing tradition of excellence in counterterrorism, based in particular on the penetration of terrorist networks.

France’s homeland security forces include the national police and the “gendarmerie nationale,” a uniformed security force that among other things has primary responsibility for security in nonurban areas.

Defense Budget

For 2013, France has budgeted around $41.7 billion for defense—1.5 percent of its GDP, or 1.9 percent when the budget is measured by NATO standards. This represents a relatively low level of spending per capita at around $638, slightly higher than Germany’s per capita defense spending of around $491 but smaller than that of the United Kingdom, which spends around $1,012 per capita on defense, and the United States, which spends around $2,481 per capita on defense. France’s defense spending includes $1.69 billion from exceptional revenues, in particular from sales of military frequencies. This makes France’s the fourth- or fifth-largest defense budget in the world, depending on the criteria used.

As in most other Western countries, the share of GDP France has devoted to defense has gradually declined over the past 50 years. The defense share of the national budget has followed the same trend and is now at about 10 percent. In real terms, the defense budget declined during the 1990s, but then rose again to reverse about half of this decline. At more than $40 billion in recent years, the value of France’s defense budget is nearly what it was in real terms 30 years ago, though the process of professionalizing the armed forces, and the skyrocketing cost of defense equipment, has led to a reduction in the size of French military capabilities.

The cost of maintaining and modifying the nuclear deterrent accounts for about 20 percent of the equipment budget and thus about 10 percent of the total defense budget.

Defense Industries

France has about 4,000 defense-related firms, which directly or indirectly generate 165,000 jobs. Seven major companies account for about a third of these jobs: EADS, a multinational company; Thales; MBDA, a French-British firm; DCNS, Safran, Nexter and Dassault. The French state still has some major stakes in these companies, owning 100 percent of Nexter, 64 percent of DCNS, 24 percent of Thales and 12 percent of EADS. The French defense sector generates about $20 billion in revenue, with 25-40 percent of that coming through sales abroad. France ranked fourth in defense sales in 2012, with most of its exports, 54 percent, going to Asia in the period 2008-2012. In 2011, defense sales represented about $5.3 billion. Meanwhile, France’s balance of trade in defense equipment was about $3.6 billion in France’s favor.

Military Capabilities

In 2012, France’s defense personnel numbered nearly 300,000, including 229,000 members of the military, to which should be added nearly 30,000 reservists. Their equipment includes, among other things, 7,399 armored vehicles and 307 helicopters for the army; 75 combat and support ships for the navy; and 273 combat aircraft for the air force.

The army includes a deployable force of 72,000 organized into eight combat brigades. Given the three-month duration of the French army’s operational cycle, which is shorter than those of the U.S. and the U.K., this means that 18,000 army personnel are theoretically available for medium-duration operations.

In the spring of 2013, France had more than 10,000 soldiers participating in foreign interventions, most of them in Africa, with about 7,000 in Mali, Chad, Ivory Coast and the Central African Republic, and the remainder in Afghanistan and Lebanon. In addition, Paris has a presence of nearly 4,000 personnel on bases in Africa and the Middle East, with 1,900—of which 1,400 are stationed there permanently—in Djibouti, and the remainder in Gabon, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates. France’s worldwide military presence also includes five major bases and permanent deployments of about 9,000 personnel in French overseas departments and communities. France thus has a total of nine permanent major bases outside Europe.

France maintains an independent nuclear force, including four strategic submarines and two squadrons of nuclear-capable fighter-bombers, for a total of about 300 nuclear weapons. A strong believer in the value of nuclear deterrence, France considers missile defense to be only a complement, and questions its cost-effectiveness at the strategic level.

France’s main military partners are the United Kingdom, with which it signed an important bilateral treaty in 2010, and the United States, with which it enjoys excellent cooperation on counterterrorism and counterproliferation. It also has nuclear cooperation agreements with both of them. Germany has always been a key partner for France—EADS was originally a French-German company, and there are French-German military units—but Berlin’s lack of appetite for foreign adventures limits the scope of the French-German defense partnership. Paris now seeks to promote enhanced defense ties with core EU countries in the format known as Weimar Plus, which consists of France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain. Other key partners include the non-NATO countries with which France has security agreements: Djibouti, Gabon, Kuwait, Qatar, Senegal and the United Arab Emirates.

Military Operations

France participates in all significant U.N. peacekeeping operations. French military involvements overseas in the past decade include Afghanistan (2001), Cote d’Ivoire (2002), Lebanon (2006), Libya (2011) and Mali (2013). Since 1960, France has intervened in Africa about 40 times.

France’s current military interventionism is not about strategic designs for more prestige, nor is it about the need to balance Germany, which Paris in fact would love to see become more involved in crisis management in Europe’s neighborhood. Neither is France’s interventionism a way to bolster its leaders’ domestic standing: French presidents know that any boost in popularity they may get through military adventures is only temporary, and that in the current economic climate, citizens might just as easily blame their leaders for concentrating too much energy on foreign policy issues. Finally, French interventionism also does not result from a desire to secure control of energy sources and raw materials in former colonies. Libya, for example, is not a former colony, and its trade with France is limited. Securing Nigerien uranium is an important French interest; four of the seven French hostages in the Sahel were Areva employees abducted in Niger, and French special forces have been deployed to help the Nigerien army secure uranium mines. But Mali, where France also intervened, does not have any significant resources beyond gold.

There is less cynicism in French military and diplomatic strategy than some believe: Regarding Libya and Mali, the need to protect civilian populations was a key driver of French intervention. Since the end of the Cold War, France has been actively promoting the idea of humanitarian interventions.

Regarding Mali, the fate of the local population and French nationals, who numbered about 6,000, was a primary consideration in Hollande’s decision to intervene. Behind this immediate reason, there was a genuine belief that inaction would have allowed the possible installation of a narcoterrorist state in Europe’s neighborhood, which could have expanded into a broader “Sahelistan.” The presence of several French hostages in the region was also a key consideration. Finally, a dominant incentive in Parisian decision-making circles was that intervening in Mali was an opportunity to weaken al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the only declared adversary of the French state, which has attempted to strike Europe three times since 2009.

France’s continuation of a strong permanent presence in Africa is a consequence of Africa’s inability to police the continent itself, despite two decades of Western assistance to its armed forces, and of the perennial instability of many African states. France’s permanent presence in Africa is also a result of the French military’s lack of strategic airlift.

An additional factor explaining the recent French interventionism is the shift in U.S. attitudes toward military operations. In the post-Iraq and Afghanistan context, Washington is more reluctant to intervene militarily in crises that are not vital for its own interests. That stance left Paris and London in the lead in Libya, and now in advocating for a intervention in Syria. This is not unlike the situation in the early 1990s, when France and the U.K. took leadership positions in the intervention in the Balkans.

Foreign military operations cost France $10.2 billion from 2002 to 2012, including about $1.3 billion a year for the past four years. France spent a record high amount of $1.7 billion on foreign military operations in 2011, including around $670 million for Afghanistan and around $480 million for Libya.

These operations confirmed French shortfalls in air transportation and aerial refueling, as well as in drone capabilities.

2013 White Paper Decisions

The Mali operation came in the midst of the drafting of a new White Paper on Defense and National Security. Hollande had decided during the presidential campaign to have a new white paper written if he was elected. This was not only to distance himself from Sarkozy, who had produced his own, ambitious white paper in 2008. Hollande also judged that the financial crisis and the Arab Spring, to say nothing of changes in U.S. strategy, warranted another bottom-up defense and security review.

The Mali operation was consistent with what the drafters of the white paper had begun to suggest as strategic priorities for the next five years. The Sarkozy white paper had sought to reduce the permanent French presence in Africa, but demands by local leaders and fears for the stability of some states, such as Chad, had stymied these plans. As a consequence, and given the growing worries about the Sahel region, it had already been suggested that Africa would remain a priority for France even before Hollande decided to authorize the Mali operation. Operation Serval, as the French intervention in Mali was called, confirmed the benefits of having pre-positioned forces when quick reaction is needed. Despite French efforts over the past two decades to both “Africanize” and “Europeanize” its military operations on the continent through greater involvement by its African and European partners, Paris often remains the key actor when it comes to securing the northern half of Africa.

France’s defense expenditures will be for the most part preserved by the new review, though not untouched. Hollande had decided even before he was elected that the defense budget was a key to France’s preservation of its interests and ambitions, and was also essential for the preservation of its high-tech industry. Still, a cardinal justification for defense cuts was that reducing public debt—60 percent of French debt is foreign-owned, as opposed to 30 percent for the U.S. and the U.K.—was also a matter of ensuring sovereignty.

The 2013 white paper included a 10-15 percent cut of major capabilities such as ground forces, first-rank frigates and fighter-bombers. It discarded the 2008 ambition to be able to deploy up to 30,000 ground troops and 70 combat aircraft for a major operation, which was already out of reach. This was not only a consequence of budget cuts: It was judged that the probability of a Gulf War-type scenario was now low, and that the efficacy of future coercion operations would be less a function of the number of boots on the ground than it had been in the past. For cost reasons, military units will now be differentiated, with only some of them having the wherewithal for major coercion operations. Also, pooling and sharing various resources—such as transport, refueling and drones—will be pursued, both within the French armed forces and among European partners.

The white paper emphasizes strategic evolutions in Asia as very important for Europe, but the French military involvement in the region will be mostly limited to intelligence. The three bases in Africa will be maintained.

The 2013 white paper also recognizes, even more than did the 2008 document, the growing importance of cyberdefense, which will be dealt with by an intergovernmental agency. An increased financial and technical investment in this domain will be sought.

The planned defense expenditure for 2014-2025 is some $485 billion, including around $240 billion for 2014-2019. The annual budget of around $42 billion, including exceptional revenues, will stay fixed in 2014 and 2015, though this will amount to a yearly reduction of probably about 1-2 percent due to inflation. In 2016 and 2017, the budget will remain stable in real terms. In 2018 and 2019, when fiscal balance is expected to be restored, a 1 percent yearly increase in the defense budget in real terms is planned. This will reduce the defense budget’s share of the GDP to 1.7 percent by NATO standards.

Defense personnel will be reduced by 23,500, on top of the 2008 reductions of 54,900. In total, the number of French defense personnel will have been reduced by 26 percent from 2009 to 2019, or by 83,000 personnel—from 320,000 to 237,000.

France’s army will include a seven-brigade force of 66,000 deployable personnel, instead of the eight brigades of 72,000 personnel envisioned in the 2008 plan. It will possess 200 main battle tanks, 250 light tanks, 2,700 armored vehicles, 140 attack and reconnaissance helicopters, 115 maneuver helicopters and about 30 drones. The air force will have 225 combat aircraft, including those for the country’s single aircraft carrier, instead of the 300 envisioned in the 2008 plan; about 50 tactical transport aircraft, of which 35-40 will be the new Airbus A400M; seven detection and surveillance aircraft; 12 refueling tankers; and 12 surveillance drones. The navy will maintain four ballistic missile submarines, six attack submarines, one aircraft carrier, 10 destroyers—rather than the 13 envisioned in the 2008 plan—and five combat frigates, in addition to about 15 patrol ships, six surveillance frigates and three transport and command ships.

France will maintain a small, 5,000-strong pool of forces on high alert, able to generate a new joint 2,300-strong immediate reaction force that can be deployed at a maximum distance of about 1,900 miles in seven days. This will include a ground force of 1,500, as well as 10 combat aircraft, one transport and command ship and special forces.

For long-duration operations in up to three theaters, a brigade-sized land force of about 7,000, along with about 12 combat aircraft, a small maritime task force—comprising one frigate, one attack submarine and one transport and command ship—and special forces, will be available. For a major coercion operation, Paris plans to have a two-brigade land force of about 15,000, about 45 combat aircraft, and a major maritime task force centered on the aircraft carrier and two transport and command ships, as well as special forces. This potential could be augmented in a major crisis, but only at the expense of other commitments.

Outlook

As president, Hollande has given priority to the restoration of fiscal balance and debt reduction. Absent a return of growth, fiscal austerity and high unemployment will continue to foster discontent and perhaps social instability.

However, when it comes to French foreign and defense policy, there is little reason to expect any major change. There is broad consensus in France on the basics of these policies. Foreign and defense policy debates, when they happen, are rarely politically polarized.

While Paris will certainly attempt to develop its trade and strategic relationships with major emerging powers such as India and Brazil, and will maintain a close watch on military developments in Asia, its foreign policy and strategic priorities will remain heavily focused on Europe and its neighborhood—the Mediterranean region, Africa and the Middle East.

French military interventionism is likely to continue. Clearly, there will be increased constraints on France’s ability to conduct major operations by choice while fully maintaining the protection of its territory and citizens, as well as its defense commitments. But no dramatic shift in French strategic thinking is in the cards. Faced with limited U.S. appetite for new wars of choice, Paris will count on London. But even on its own, France retains significant capabilities and will remain able to engage in medium-sized operations such as those in Libya and Mali.

Despite France’s dire economic and social situation, the French population continues to support the official strategic and defense stance. Major military operations are met with approval; only French operations in Afghanistan have become unpopular in recent years. The operation in Mali received a unanimous vote of support from the National Assembly, a rare event. The annual Bastille Day military parade is a favorite public celebration. Public spending on defense remains popular. The French do not have greater tolerance for casualties compared to other countries’ civilian populations, but they have no problem supporting what they see as just causes. And their political system leaves great latitude to the president in foreign and defense policy, with few checks and balances.

Dr. Bruno Tertrais is a senior research fellow at the Paris-based Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique (Foundation for Strategic Research). He was a member of the 2007 and 2012 presidential commissions on the White Paper on Defense and National Security, as well as the 2008 ministerial commission on the White Paper on Foreign and European Policy.

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