By Lili Bayer
The oldest existing piece of French literature is the epic poem “La Chanson de Roland,” which depicts Frankish knights fighting under Charlemagne in the Battle of Roncevaux Pass in 778. On the surface, “La Chanson de Roland” is a tale of valor, loyalty and friendship, but at the core this early poem also illustrates one of France’s enduring geopolitical realities.
In the poem, Roland and his fellow knights fight against Saracens in the Pyrenees Mountains. While rulers from Charlemagne to Napoleon temporarily pushed French control much beyond the boundaries of modern-day France, the country’s core has always been defined by several key geographic features. First, the Pyrenees Mountains to the south separate France from Spain. Invading armies have crossed the mountains, but historically it was the Pyrenees that separated France from North African and Iberian forces. In the east and southeast, France is separated from the Italian Peninsula and from Switzerland by the Alps. In the west, France’s long coastline and the English Channel separate it from the United Kingdom. In the north, there are fewer natural boundaries: the flat North European Plain begins in northern France and stretches into Germany. The area that is today Belgium has been invaded by nearly every major European power over the past millennium due to its strategic and largely indefensible position. Moreover, those natural boundaries that exist in the region have proved to be deceptive deterrents to invasion. For example, in 1940, the French General Staff expected German troops to invade France through Belgium, mistakenly believing that moving troops through the Ardennes forest and Meuse River would prove too difficult for Germany.
France is a unique European power because it is wedged between the North Sea and the Mediterranean, and between Atlantic powers, European land powers and southern European states. As a result, French strategy must be designed with an eye on the European continent, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
France has three primary strategic goals:
- Ensure domestic stability.
- Minimize threats to France’s vulnerable northern border.
- Neutralize security threats to the south in the Mediterranean and Africa.
Domestic Political and Economic Stability
France’s first strategic goal is maintaining internal political and economic stability. In France, the 30 years between 1945 and 1975 are referred to as the Trente Glorieuses, or the Thirty Glorious Years, due to the post-war economic boom and reconstruction. And yet, much of this period was marred by weak governments, debt, colonial crises and, as in the crisis over the fate of Algeria, a bloody war, revolts and attempted military coups. France was in turmoil. The country’s Fourth Republic (1946-1958) could not last in large part because its structure undermined stability. The Fourth Republic’s parliamentary system and lack of a strong president created weak coalitions that could not effectively address France’s problems.
To ensure stability, France has adopted several structural, economic and political measures. First, the Fifth Republic, as designed by Charles de Gaulle, sought to alleviate the country’s challenges by creating a strong executive office. At the same time, France has worked to preserve stability through high government spending and an expansive welfare system. Between 1978 and 2015, according to Eurostat, government spending averaged 52.2 percent of GDP. In 2015, government expenditures equaled 56.8 percent of GDP, compared with 43.9 percent in Germany and 43.2 percent in the United Kingdom. Finally, France has pursued European integration and adopted the euro in part as a way to boost trade, promote economic growth and enjoy the benefits of a relatively stable currency.
Neutralize Threats to Northern Border
France’s northern border is geographically and historically its most vulnerable to invasion. The reason for frequent clashes in this region is that Germany’s grand strategy is rooted in its own fear of invasion and goal of achieving domination of the North European Plain and surrounding buffer areas.
Following World War II, France’s main tactic for achieving security in the north has been the creation of a strong alliance and economic integration with Germany. France’s support for the European Union and eurozone, therefore, is due in large part to efforts to shape a close relationship with Berlin. Paris also sought to use its relationship with Germany in an attempt to create a counterweight to Washington as the U.S. boosted its role in Europe following 1945, and as France was losing its colonies abroad. At the same time, France seeks to ensure that economic and political decision-making on the European level is conducted in part as a negotiation between the two powers, with Paris and Berlin treated as equal partners.
On the one hand, European Union integration and the Franco-German alliance have led to significant economic interdependencies. For example, in 2014, France was the top destination for German exports (to be displaced by the U.S. in 2015), while Germany was the primary destination for French exports. On the other hand, as we have outlined over the past several months, cracks are emerging in the French relationship with Germany, both due to diverging economic interests and growing differences on the issue of European defense. While the alliance remains intact, these divergent interests contribute to fragmentation and create hurdles for effective decision-making in Europe.
Neutralizing Threats in the Mediterranean and Africa
France, unlike Germany, is also a Mediterranean power. At the same time, Paris does not share Berlin’s reticence to project military power, and boasts one of the most powerful militaries in Europe. As a result of its geography, Paris both in the past and today takes a strong interest in Africa and the Middle East. For France, stability in these regions, as well as security threats emanating from the Mediterranean area, are significant concerns. As a result, France over the past few years has deployed thousands of troops throughout the region, including in the Central African Republic, Mali and Gulf of Guinea. In some cases, France deployed forces to boost the position of friendly regimes, while in others it primarily assisted in combating terror and militant groups. France’s military operations abroad, including airstrikes in Syria, also serve another purpose. France is not the European Union’s leading economic power, but by maintaining a formidable military and playing a role in military interventions abroad, it ensures that Paris still has a seat at the table in international negotiations, from talks on the future of Ukraine to Syria and Iran.
Nevertheless, France’s defense spending as a proportion of GDP has been declining, and the country’s military operations abroad are relatively limited in scope. Official NATO estimates show that France spent merely 1.8 percent of its GDP on defense spending last year. French decision-makers are aware that they cannot address large-scale challenges in the Mediterranean, nor do they have the resources to conduct significant operations without assistance. Paris is thus now pushing for Germany to contribute more to defense programs because France cannot achieve its strategic goals abroad on its own.
Caught between northern and southern Europe, between the Mediterranean and Atlantic, France struggles with a complex set of challenges. Paris is working to ensure domestic political and economic stability, while also neutralizing potential threats emanating from its vulnerable northern frontier and Mediterranean flank. France’s primary tactic for addressing its strategic challenges has been to create a strong alliance with Germany, while it also strives to address potential threats to its south through an active foreign policy, including military operations, in Africa and the Middle East. However, growing divergences between Paris and Berlin, as well as limited resources, will continue posing challenges for France.