French voters head to the polls Sunday to choose their next president: centrist Emmanuel Macron or far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen. On the campaign trail, Le Pen has advocated closer relations with Russia and said she wants to pull France out of both the European Union and NATO. The Cipher Brief’s Kaitlin Lavinder spoke with Philippe Le Corre, a visiting fellow from France at the Brookings Institution who formerly served in France’s Ministry of Defense, about what a Le Pen presidency could mean for defense and security.
The Cipher Brief: What would a Marine Le Pen presidency mean for defense and security policies in France?
Philippe Le Corre: It is a lot of guessing because she has so little foreign experience. She has been an elected member of the European Parliament for 13 years, which is kind of ironic: she’s an MEP, but she’s anti-European. So she goes there and criticizes Europe, but at the same time she has no real policy about the affairs of the world.
Obviously she wants to increase the defense budget. But her main thing is dealing with immigration – stopping immigration – by withdrawing from the European Union, or at least the European idea, and withdrawing from the Schengen agreement, which is the free crossing of European borders.
TCB: When you say she wants to increase the defense budget you presumably mean the French national defense budget; has she made any comments about whether she would also continue or increase defense cooperation with Europe, even if she decides to go through with a so-called “Frexit” referendum to withdraw France from the EU?
PL: First of all, she said she wants to withdraw from NATO, which would have serious consequences on the transatlantic relationship. This would be a big shift. But we’re not there yet. She’s not elected. And even if she’s elected on May 7, which is not the most likely scenario, she will most certainly not have a parliamentary majority in the June parliamentary elections. And withdrawing from NATO without having a parliamentary majority is going to be very challenging because even though defense and foreign policy are part of the president’s prerogatives, I don’t believe she can make many decisions by herself of that importance. She would have to go through Parliament at some stage.
TCB: But does withdrawing from NATO, withdrawing from the EU mean an actual cut in ties between France on the one side and NATO and the EU on the other with regard to defense? For example, with Brexit, I’ve talked with a lot of people from the UK who say that defense cooperation and counterterrorism cooperation are the least of the concerns when it comes to Brexit. Obviously, Britain will remain in NATO. Still, with regard to the EU, it’s in Britain’s interest, so experts say, to keep defense and intelligence networks with the EU.
PL: Right. But the problem is NATO without France would be different. France is a huge contributor to NATO, and France is a bit of a special case compared to the UK because France does believe in using its resources in different ways, and not just giving it all to NATO. In other words, it doesn’t give a blank check to a U.S.-led Atlantic alliance, to put it bluntly, that is, NATO. That’s why it was strange to hear President Donald Trump criticizing NATO during his campaign because it’s basically a U.S. tool. But the French have a very peculiar view.
For example, under former French President Charles de Gaulle, France withdrew from NATO’s integrated command. That changed under President Nicolas Sarkozy about 10 years ago when France actually went back into the integrated command. So France is a full member of NATO now. But France has its own issues and does believe there are other ways to protect its citizens and protect its overseas territories. France has the second-largest maritime domain in the world, for example, which means that it needs to have its own navy patrolling the South China Sea or the Pacific, which no other European country has – even the UK’s is much smaller.
The UK is going to be out of the EU. That’s a done deal. They will of course keep their membership in NATO because NATO is their way to interact with the United States and possibly with Europe. But France could very well leave NATO. What I’m not sure of is how Le Pen would manage to keep the equilibrium between the relationship with NATO and the relationship with Europe – because she criticizes both of them, she basically likes neither of them.
Until now, every serious analyst on defense matters – and I myself served in the Ministry of Defense as a special assistant to the Minister a few years ago – would say that it’s good to cooperate in Europe on procurement and on exchange of information, things like that. Withdrawing from European cooperation on defense is completely opposite to France’s interest, especially with terrorism, where there’s need for more cooperation, not less. So I suspect that she would have to find a way to cooperate with others. It’s impossible to live in an isolated state because France is not an isolated country; it’s at the center of Europe geographically.
On the U.S. side, leaving NATO would mean severing relations with the U.S. in military terms. That would have very strong consequences and it would be terrible really because France is a very close U.S. ally in counterterrorism, in sharing of intelligence, in military operations in Iraq and in the past Afghanistan, and many other places, like Kosovo. So cutting links with the United States would be a complete disaster. I don’t believe she would do that. But withdrawing from NATO is a strange idea. You could possibly reduce the level of involvement, but not a complete withdrawal. It’s not very clear; she needs to clarify her position on this.
TCB: Has she discussed at all what the next step would be if France were to withdraw from NATO? So, for example, does Le Pen seem to think that she could keep defense collaboration with the United States outside of NATO and then engage in other bilateral defense cooperation with European states? Or does she seem to think that she would change France’s defense alliances and draw closer to other countries such as Russia, for example?
PL: The Russia question is quite an important one because, as you may know, Le Pen’s National Front party received money from Russia via a Russian bank a few years ago. The Russian bank was actually based in the Czech Republic, which made it legal because they used the Prague branch of this Russian branch to give money to a European political party. If it was a Russian bank giving directly to a French political party, that wouldn’t be legal.
To answer your question, I think she would have to change her views. From the U.S., serious people at the Pentagon and other officials would say to her, you can’t just leave NATO like this. And we will not help you do that. So for France to remain involved in today’s globalized world, where even terrorism is global, you need more and more exchanges with others. You cannot isolate yourself, especially when you’re France in the center of Europe.
You can always try to build a wall around your country – that sounds familiar. But there’s a maritime domain, there are borders with Spain, with Italy, with Germany, with Belgium, with Switzerland. So Le Pen will have to at least keep one foot in NATO. She may try to withdraw from the integrated command or something like that. Then again, I have to be cautious because I don’t know what her exact views are.
TCB: Regarding the Russia question, beyond the campaign financing and beyond some of Le Pen’s rhetoric about wanting to have a closer relationship with Russia, is there any evidence that she would try to establish some kind of defensive or military cooperation with them?
PL: I doubt it very much. That would be so extreme. I don’t know though. She has been very vague. She has been saying things about Russian President Vladimir Putin, just like President Trump did during his campaign, but that doesn’t mean engaging in cooperation. Can you imagine France and Russia becoming allies? It’s just impossible to think about.
TCB: And, as you’ve mentioned, even if Le Pen were to win on May 7, it’s not a given she would – or even could – follow through on any of her campaign positions, correct?