Emmanuel Macron and What Army: the assets and liabilities of soft and hard power policy – Part 3

By Chris Brown

Retrospectively, I’m glad that I put off the final installment in this series of blog posts for so

long. 2018 was a long and treacherous year for Macron. The progression to violent skirmishes

between gendarmes et gilets jaunes epitomizes the discontent that results from the liberal

centrist’s fiscal policies. Understanding Macron means understanding the context of his liberal

economic cadre and its raisons d’étre in France. Macron himself may frequently frame his

actions in an internationalist context, citing the goals of the COP21 accords or “commitments at

the EU, G20, and UN levels,” as he does at the head of his speech on 27 November in response

to the gilets jaunes protests. However, the force behind his policy decisions comes from a larger

political and intellectual class than just Macron, whose aims diverge from those of the COP21


Ever since the mid to late 1980s, it has essentially been the goal of each French

government’s economic policy to catch up with the leading European economies. Macron is

unique in that his aim to increase economic competitiveness coincides with his previously

discussed goal of making budget cuts to reduce France’s deficit and debt-to-GDP ratios to within

the European Commission’s recommendations: a goal which was achieved by the French

government 2017, but will likely be undone by the time 2019 is over. Meanwhile, “Liberal”

economists have criticized Macron’s reform, which coincides with this budgetary goal, for not

going far enough. Such criticisms include his policy’s failure to reduce social security pay-ins for

businesses, his 2018 budget’s failure to show sufficient deficit reductions, and his labor reforms’

lack of substantive change compared with that of other EU countries in the wake of the


The position of the EU tends to coincide with that of the French economic elite when it

comes to a pairing of budget and tax cuts meant to boost the French economy back towards

lower unemployment and more steady growth. It would appear, however, that among the first

priorities to fall in the face of the gilets jaunes protests are those demanded by the European

Union. The Edouard Philippe government has announced that the French public will see no

increase of the TICPE emissions tax in 2019.

Now what does all of this have to do with defense spending? Macron’s budgetary

pivoting in the French public arena is more than just analogous to European defense spending in

the sphere of transatlantic relations. Whereas the past year’s worth of economic reform made by

the Macron/Philippe government has been modest at best, 2018 turned out to be a boon for the

growth and development of the European Defense Community. Countries across the EU have

made progress towards the 2% of GDP NATO spending target. Some EU members have even

exhibited resistance to Russian sharp power pressure, such as Finland, whose September raids on

Russian-owned properties on its western islands caught its Russian owners off-guard.

Meanwhile, and perhaps more importantly, the goals of European Defense spending and

foreign policy motives across EU countries coalesced more than it had in years prior. Across the

EU, countries responded swiftly and sharply to the Skripal affair by expelling Russian diplomats

last March. Then, in the fall afterwards, Macron used his pulpit at the 100th anniversary of

armistice day to advance his goal of uniting a “European Army”, this time harping on the

importance of thereby establishing European sovereignty. This position of Macron’s, met with a

twitterstorm from Donald Trump, who pointed out Macron’s own domestic struggles, is a

precarious one in the realm of European security, but is one that is increasingly supported by key

actors across the EU. Even Angela Merkel, who was at first hesitant to jump on board with

Macron’s many reformist proposals, now has a sizeable base of support, even among the less-

than-warhawkish German public to work with.

Given Macron’s importance as a driver behind reinforcing European security, the

delicacy of his domestic situation endangers his plans for a European Army. If he crumples

against Meluche’s generation of yellow-vested protests and changes his draft budget, then

Macron loses clout as a champion of EU rules and policies. If he doubles down as a European

‘sovereign’ and cracks down on protesters, a price will be paid in credibility as one among

Europe’s vanguard against authoritarianism. For the time being, it would appear that Macron has

chosen the latter. While I would not personally set the bar so low as to compare Macron to

authoritarians like Putin in this regard, the optics of Macron’s overzealous response to protesters

and calls for European sovereignty have the potential to empower those who stand against said