AFTER GERMANY’S decision on January 25th to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries to do the same, half a dozen of its European neighbors have promised tanks. Missing from the list, however, is France. A few days earlier, when asked if his country would contribute its Leclerc battle tanks, Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said that “nothing was ruled out”. France was keen to spur Germany to action, announcing in early January that it would dispatch “light tanks”, AMX-10RCs, to Ukraine. Yet only the previous month Mr Macron was arguing that Russia would need “security guarantees” in a future peace negotiation. He keeps the lines open to Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart. What exactly is France’s policy on Ukraine?
The apparent ambiguity of France’s position stems from two things. One is the role that Mr. Macron played in the years preceding the Russian invasion. Having tried to charm Mr Putin into better behaviour, welcoming him to Versailles and his presidential residence on the Mediterranean, Mr Macron made a last-ditch trip to Moscow in early February 2022 to try to prevent war. These failed overtures framed the French president as a leader unwilling to confront Mr Putin’s belligerence.
Second, after the invasion Mr Macron has spoken to his Russian counterpart more than has any other Western leader. The French president periodically evokes the possibility of peace talks, arguing that Russia’s concerns will need to be taken into account. Last year he pressed the case for “not humiliating” Russia. The conclusion in some quarters is that Mr Macron wants to push Ukraine into suing for peace.
The French presidency categorically denies this. At no moment, says an adviser, Mr Macron has put pressure on Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, to negotiate. Mr Macron has hardened his line on Russia, declaring on December 31st that France would support Ukraine “all the way to victory”. The change has been noted in Kyiv. “Macron’s statement indeed demonstrates a substantial shift,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Mr Zelensky’s former defense minister, in a tweeting responding to the news. These days the French president’s conversations with Mr Putin are carefully considered; the pair has not spoken since September. In the meantime, France has sent Ukraine state-of-the-art CAESAR howitzers and air defense systems; the AMX-10RCs will be dispatched shortly.
Mr Macron still seems to hope that France could one day help to mediate an end to the war. That might explain why he has been wary of leading Europe’s military support for Ukraine. He may also have lingering fears of escalation, a view that runs deep in the foreign-policy establishment in Paris. But France’s recent heavy-arms deliveries suggest that its judgment of that risk has evolved. Mr. Macron may simply be saying out loud what other Ukrainian allies are thinking. Russia will remain on Europe’s doorstep, with or without Mr Putin in charge. At some point, the French say, the war will end in talks, and they will have to consider the security of the continent and the location of NATOfuture borders. That may be, but Mr. Macron’s eagerness to express the complexity of the situation undermines the clarity of France’s position.
In reality France is close to the American position on Ukraine, as was evident during Mr Macron’s state visit to Washington in December 2022. Both countries worry about escalation. President Joe Biden finds Mr Macron’s line to Mr Putin useful. The Americans also know that France is the European Union’s biggest military power. On January 20th the French president announced a massive 40% increase in the French defense budget for 2024-30, compared with 2019-25, to €413bn ($449bn).
If France does send Leclerc tanks to Ukraine, it would probably be a symbolic rather than an operational decision. The French army has little more than 200 of the tanks in operation, and can spare a few of them. Either way, Mr Macron has made his political and military support for Ukraine clearer than ever, even if France remains unlikely to take the lead. ■