French national elections do not stir much euphoria in a geographically far away region like the Indo-Pacific. During the election phase in France, domestic issues have dominated the debate, and foreign policy issues have largely taken a backseat. Nevertheless, the outcome of these battles for Elysée Palace will significantly impact the future of the EU, NATO and the Indo-Pacific region. As a resident power, France has immense stakes in the stability and security of the Indo-Pacific. Over 2 million French nationals are in the region, and 1.65 million resides in the French territories. Around 93% of France’s exclusive economic zone is in the Indo-Pacific, and more than 7000 French troops are permanently posted in the region. Consequently, the diplomatic and defence posture of the next French President towards the Indo-Pacific will have a direct impact on the geopolitics of the region.
Continuity and Innovation
Since 1958, French foreign policy and diplomacy have focused primarily on building a secure and stable cooperation with the US, transforming the EU into a strategic autonomous actor at the global stage, showing openness to engage Russia diplomatically, and promoting stability and development in Africa. Overall, the state elites in France have always preferred to maintain continuity in the foreign policy realm. Nevertheless, certain novelties such as a desire to build and strengthen military presence and political influence in the Indo-Pacific region have also permeated the French foreign policy in recent years.
Initiated by President Macron, the French policy towards the Indo-Pacific centered around bolstering the country’s global standing and protecting its overseas territories in the region. In New Caledonia, a French overseas territory in the Indo-Pacific, Macron delivered a speech when the island was awaiting a referendum for independence. During his speech, Macron stated that France would be less beautiful without New Caledonia. This shows the importance that France attaches to its overseas territories and the Indo-Pacific, as without these overseas territories in the Indo-Pacific, the country’s influence over the region would become feeble.
Macron’s Vision of the Indo-Pacific
Emmanuel Macron, compared to his political opponent Marine Le Pen, has been more outward-looking in his policies. Being a pro-EU president, Macron always aligned with the EU’s idea of multilateralism. On the Indo-Pacific, he maintains that France should act as an inclusive and stabilizing mediating power in the region. France’s Indo-Pacific strategy outlined by Macron in 2018 focused on preserving the French-American friendship, disentangling France from the ongoing rivalry between US and China, and protecting French interests from the rise of China. An essential aspect of this strategy is to strengthen cooperation between France-Australia-India. Despite facing setback by the AUKUS defence pact, France invited Australia along with 30 other nations from the region to the Indo-Pacific Forum co-organised by the French Foreign Ministry and the EU in Paris in February 2022. This shows that multilateralism remains a core component of France’s Indo-Pacific strategy. At present, France holds the presidency of the Council of the EU. This puts the country in a better position to assert its role and that of the EU in the region.
It is very likely that Macron, who has secured another term, will assertively pursue French interests in the Indo-Pacific. Such an approach is necessary to maintain France’s position at the global level. At the same time, as Ms Le Pen’s populist party enjoys more acceptance than ever, there is a possibility that it still might win future elections. If a populist regime comes to power in France, it can reverse decades of progress made in world politicsin a few years. This was evident in Trump’s administration. Therefore, Macron is more likely to strengthen France’s external position so that it will not be at the mercy of populist parties in the future. It is highly likely that under Macron’s Presidency, France will play a very active role in the Indo-Pacific region in terms of alliance-building, strengthening security, and achieving progress in non-traditional security areas through multilateralism.
Unpredictability under Marine Le Pen & the National Rally
Under Ms Le Pen (and those who share the platform) French foreign policy would potentially enter into an unpredictable and unknown arena. Until now, her stance on the foreign policy issues, especially NATO, EU, climate change, and free trade agreements, indicates a parochial approach toward the international relations. Ms Le Pen has been vocal about quitting NATO’s integrated military command that it rejoined in 2009 “so that France is not dragged into wars that are not its own.” She is equally wary of joining any future European military command. Recently, the Ukraine war has constrained Ms Le Pen to advocate sympathy for Russia and President Putin openly. In 2017, as a nationalist, she had proclaimed deep admiration for President Putin. Although Ms Le Pen has condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine, she remains critical of the European sanctions on Russian oil and gas as it leads to energy price rise in France. Given her ideological proximity to populist and nationalist leaders, it is highly likely that Ms Le Pen will eventually embrace like-minded leaders such as Mr Putin, Viktor Orban, and President Xi Xinping.
On the question of China, Ms Le Pen stated that under her government, “France would continue to stand up against China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and the opportunity for France is to demonstrate that we have the power to be an element of pacification.” Ms Le Pen is also critical of Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang. However, she is not in favour of imposing sanctions on China for Human Rights abuses. Under Ms Le Pen, the French role would continue to involve a lot of mix messaging to China. However, it may compromise one of the most critical components of the French foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, i.e. multilateralism. To sum up, a future entrance of Ms Le Pen (& the National Rally) into the Elysee Palace would be good news for the right-wing, populist, and authoritarian leaders. At the same time, it will also be a setback for French policy in the Indo-Pacific and multilateralism in global politics.
(Dr Yatharth Kachiar is an Assistant Professor, and Shankar Narayan S is a Research Scholar at the Manipal Centre for European Studies, MAHE, Karnataka)