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In recent months, France may well have become Kyiv’s most determined ally — all thanks to President Emmanuel Macron, who hinted in late February that his country might be prepared to deploy ground forces to Ukraine. That statement was made one day after the French Senate approved an agreement on security guarantees between the two countries. The international press and world leaders were astounded by such an abrupt change of rhetoric from a politician who had once positioned himself as the chief peacemaker in Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor. Now, after years spent attempting to accommodate the Kremlin’s stated concerns, Macron has lifted the taboo on the possible deployment of Western troops to Ukraine, bringing the potential for further Western support to a new level.

  • From dove to hawk

  • Who is Macron’s audience?

  • Bluff or high alert?

  • Olympic risks


From dove to hawk

In the early winter of 2022, while Russia was still in the process of positioning its tanks around the Ukrainian border, French President Emmanuel Macron still believed that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was possible. Shortly before the “de-Nazification of Ukraine” made global headlines, Macron traveled to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. The two presidents, facing each other from the opposite ends of Putin's fabled five-meter-long table, became the stuff of memes. Even after Feb. 24, 2022, when Russian troops swarmed across the border unprovoked, Macron’s endless calls to the Kremlin indicated an undeniable faith in the prospects for a swiftly negotiated peace.

Macron's course in the early days of the war in Ukraine was aligned with his earlier attempts to normalize relations with Russia and integrate it into Europe’s security architecture. As late as June 2022, while Russian artillery was reducing the Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk to rubble and S-300 rockets were slamming into Mykolaiv apartment blocs on an almost nightly basis, the French president still insisted that the West should not “humiliate Russia.” It was a stance that made Macron the target of criticism for “going to the Kremlin with a hand out.”

Two years into the war, however, Emmanuel Macron became the first Western leader to even suggest that he “does not rule out” sending Western troops to Ukraine. He followed that comment up by stating point-blank in a big interview with TF1 and France 2:

“We are ready to make the necessary decisions to ensure that Russia never wins. And I hope that a moment will come soon when we can renegotiate with the president of the Russian Federation, whoever occupies this post.”

Still confident that France remains a force for peace, Macron emphasized that “seeking peace does not mean choosing defeat.” Moreover, instead of ruminating on de-escalation or mediation in the conflict, the French president focused on national defense: the war has already come to Europe, he said, as “there is less than 1,500 kilometers from Strasbourg to Lviv.”

Macron made his statement on Mar. 14, shortly before the meeting of the Weimar Triangle — the leaders of Germany, Poland, and France — and against the background of Russia’s rumored upcoming offensive around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. His abrupt change of tone has caused shock, alarm, and heated debate worldwide. International media has provided ample coverage of his transformation “from dove to hawk.” Some consider him a provocateur and have reproached him for inconsistency; others simply doubt his capacity to follow through on his belligerent statements with decisive action. This skepticism has been fueled by Macron’s persistent postponement of an anticipated visit to Ukraine — a trip originally scheduled for mid-February.

The French president's earlier moderate rhetoric was better liked, at least in Berlin. As Professor Andreas Heinemann-Grüder, visiting fellow at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic, and Integration Studies (CASSIS) and senior fellow at the Bonn International Center for Conflict Studies (BICC), explained to The Insider, Macron's placatory attitude was beneficial for the Federal Chancellor's office, allowing “the former German ‘appeasers’ to project an image of resolve.” Given the current schism in the German government, “nobody wants to sacrifice the [domestic political] coalition for Ukraine. Political survival of the government is more important than Ukraine, despite all rhetoric,” Heinemann-Grüder says.

Macron's statements have further exacerbated tensions between himself and Olaf Scholz, as their views on what to consider a “red line” have clearly diverged. Andreas Umland, an analyst at the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies (SCEEUS) at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, noted in a conversation with The Insider that France has assumed a more dynamic position than Germanylikely because Macron has come to realize that previous French diplomatic efforts, as well as its president’s supposed “special relationship with Putin,” had hopelessly failed. Heinemann-Grüder agrees with Umland: Macron understood it was imperative to prevent Putin from feeling safe and to deny him the prerogative of “exclusive Russian escalation dominance.”

Additionally, Macron has domestic reasons to amp up his Ukraine rhetoric. Supporters of the political coalition Ensemble ! (“Together”), which was formed in 2021 as a union of Macron's Renaissance Party, the Democratic Movement, and Horizons, assign significant importance to his position on the war in Ukraine, according to a Les Échos poll.

The issue offers Macron the chance to use foreign policy as a means of differentiating himself from his political opponents, who have roundly criticized the president’s rhetoric around Ukraine. The leader of La France Insoumise — “France Unbowed” — Jean-Luc Mélenchon, characterized Macron's words as “madness” and an “irresponsible act.” The head of the Socialist Party Olivier Faure also called Macron's statements “madness,” noting the “disturbing ease” with which the president had chosen his words.

Whether the French public on the whole will appreciate the president’s new rhetoric remains to be seen, but in any case, his approval rating needs saving. In a recent opinion poll published on Mar. 27 by the official TV channel of the French Senate, Macron's personal rating had sunk back to the depths it reached one year ago following the adoption of a controversial pension reform policy. As of late last month, 69% of French citizens do not view him as the right president for the country. Meanwhile, the share of citizens who call Russia an “ally and partner” of France, however small, has grown to 13%, two percentage points more than in February.

Who is Macron’s audience?

Analysts believe that Macron's bellicose statements are mostly aimed at foreign audiences. Hamit Bozarslan, a political scientist specializing in the comparative analysis of democratic and anti-democratic discourses, is convinced that the French president's statements are addressed primarily to Germany, the UK, and the United States. Macron seeks to “make NATO members face their responsibility rather than push the Kremlin towards a dialogue,” the expert said.

The German press has called Macron's suggestion about the possibility of sending ground troops to Ukraine “a purposeful signal to Olaf Scholz.” And not without cause. As Heinemann-Grüder explained it to The Insider, Macron's statement that “there will be no appeasement with France's support” deliberately contrasted with German Social Democratic Party head Rolf Mützenich’s statement that the conflict could be frozen “with the approval of the German chancellor.”

Macron's hawkishness further contrasts with Germany's refusal to supply Kyiv with TAURUS cruise missiles. Among its reasons, Germany cites the possible need to send German instructors to Ukraine in order to ensure that the weapons system is properly utilized — a step Berlin considers a “red line.” According to Heinemann-Grüder, the French president is sending the opposite message: while Ukraine may never get active-duty French troops to fight in the trenches, it will most certainly have French instructors located somewhere behind the front lines.

Still, expert opinion on Macron’s target audience is far from unanimous. Edward Lucas, a senior adviser at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), believes that Macron's recent statements are, first and foremost, directed at the Kremlin:

“Russia’s theory of victory assumes Western division and weakness. ...Just as inaction in the U.S., Germany, and some other countries seemed to be confirming those assumptions, Macron’s stance upends them.”

There is, however, one point on which all the experts interviewed by The Insider agree: Macron has lifted the taboo on the potential deployment of Western troops to Ukraine. “Raising the specter of Ukrainian defeat, with its catastrophic consequences for Europe, concentrates minds, not least at home,” Lucas states.

Macron has lifted the taboo on the potential deployment of Western troops to Ukraine

Bluff or high alert?

All observers wonder what kind of force Macron is prepared to move closer to Ukraine’s borders, and, if necessary, to deploy to its embattled territory. Five days after the French president's televised interview of Mar. 14, Le Monde published an article by General Pierre Schille, Chief of Staff of the French army, who assured readers that:

“France has the capacity to commit one division, i.e. around 20,000 men, to a coalition within 30 days. It can command a corps of up to 60,000 men in coalition, by combining a French division and national capabilities at the top end of the military spectrum with one or more allied divisions.”

Still, an on-the-ground French commitment to Ukraine would not be likely to involve such a large contingent of troops. When it comes to sending French forces to Ukraine, the range of options is very broad, explains French military officer, historian, and retired Marine Colonel Michel Goya. France could offer advisers, specialists to monitor the Belarusian border, mechanics, medical personnel, and other types of so-called support forces.

It could also deploy aviation fighter squadrons and ground-based infantry units that might be needed to defend parts of Ukrainian territory in the event of a future Russian breakthrough. Earlier on the LCI channel, Goya cited specific figures: France has 15,000 troops available for overseas deployment — that is, two brigades, which can hold only part of the front. The colonel clarified:

“In France, the power to use military force is very straightforward: it is the President of the Republic who makes the decision. By contrast, in countries like Germany, it requires a complicated parliamentary vote. In addition, the French army is one of Europe’s few active armies with vast combat experience.”

Through his statements, the French leader is first of all taking the initiative to unite European forces. After the aforementioned trilateral meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk back on Mar. 15, Macron explained in an interview with Le Parisien: “We call for making the most of our complementary strengths.” The need for such a coalition is particularly strong in the run-up to the U.S. presidential election, the outcome of which could be a turning point for Ukraine’s war effort — and not necessarily a positive one. “Should we delegate our future to the American voter? My response is no, whatever this voter decides,” Macron said.

However, France’s resources are too limited for any unilateral action. As Goya explains:

“We will have to work together... In any case, even a small coalition, with or without an American presence, seems highly problematic. It would most likely involve several European countries. And these European countries need to make up their minds too. France could serve as a driving force, pushing for the formation of this coalition.”

If the coalition troops are indeed engaged, Russia will find itself significantly outnumbered, considering NATO’s 20-fold advantage in the number of military personnel — a reality that Nicolas Tenzer, Chairman of the Center for Studies and Research on Political Decision (CERAP), highlighted in a Franceinfo broadcast.

Macron, for his part, has maintained ambiguity as to when, where, why, and in what quantities French troops might actually be sent to Ukraine. On Mar. 26, Le Figaro listed five options that the president is said to be considering.

  1. The establishment of French factories for the production of arms and ammunition on Ukrainian territory. As the publication's sources note, such plants could become “the main target for the Russian army.”
  2. Mine clearance work, assistance in organizing and conducting military exercises for Ukrainian troops, and technical assistance in equipment maintenance.
  3. The defense of Odesa. At a Feb. 21 meeting at the Élysée Palace, Macron said: “In any case, I will have to send men to Odesa in the coming year.” According to Le Figaro, this scenario implies the deployment of French troops to provide ground and air security for the southern Ukrainian port city.
  4. Using French forces to create a so-called protection zone in the de-occupied Ukrainian territories.
  5. Direct confrontation between French and Russian forces, and participation of French troops in trench warfare. In this scenario, French soldiers would be fighting alongside Ukrainian troops. Le Figaro assesses this scenario as the least likely, as it implies the direct involvement of France as a party to the conflict.

The multiple interpretations of Macron’s words are partly due to the abstract language he chose to use. In his interview, he avoided explicitly mentioning Western interests in Ukraine, such as safeguarding the safety of Western diplomats, maintaining the security of Ukrainian nuclear power plants, or ensuring stability in the supply of Ukrainian grain to the world market, an issue that can indirectly affect the flow of refugees to Europe.

According to Andreas Umland, Macron was deliberately vague in order to “create uncertainty for Russia.” CEPA Senior Advisor Edward Lucas also believes that the French president intentionally “keeps everyone guessing, including Putin.” Wording like “cannot exclude” makes the exact meaning of Macron's words unclear. However, Umland calls into question the wisdom of this strategy of confusion, both for French domestic politics and Europe as a whole, as many people could conclude that Macron indeed implied that he is intent on sending French soldiers to Ukraine. It is this fear that Pyotr Tolstoy, a former Kremlin propagandist turned deputy chairman of the Russian parliament, exploited in an interview with the French television channel BFMTV. Tolstoy threatened to kill “all French soldiers who will come to Ukrainian soil.”

Olympic risks

Bellicose statements are not Macron's only leverage. This July, Paris is set to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games, putting France in the spotlight of the world’s attention and providing it with additional opportunities to exert international pressure — for example, by publicly supporting the International Olympic Committee’s decision to forbid Russian and Belarusian athletes from participating under their national flags. Macron has already used the Olympics as a pretext to call for a Russian ceasefire for the duration of the games.

But at the same time, the Olympics themselves may also make France more vulnerable to potential Russian reprisals. According to Michel Goya:

“We are in a situation of confrontation with Russia, though not in a state of war. The Russians have launched cyberattacks. They are trying to gain political influence in France and elsewhere. They may also indirectly attack us in Africa. There will be major events in 2024: not only the Olympics, but also the anniversary of the Normandy landings. The arrival in the country of numerous foreign heads of state and the general presence of large numbers of people exacerbates the security problem. At times like these, we are vulnerable to all sorts of attacks. Every time there is a crisis in France, we see the intervention of Russian agents of influence. From a security standpoint, it's a battlefield.”

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