STUTTGART, Germany — As France prepares to vote in the presidential election this weekend, the outcome, no matter the winner, will have reverberating ramifications on the future of European defense and capability development.
As of press time, polls largely show incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron ahead as Sunday’s runoff election approaches; he’s expected to receive 55% of votes, with far-right challenger Marine Le Pen 10 points behind.
But observers haven’t ruled out a surprise victory for Le Pen, noting that if she wins, the leader of the National Rally party is more than ready to fundamentally disrupt France’s current role as a key driver of European defense and technological innovation.
Both candidates have advocated for a similar goal, analysts told Defense News: a strong military with a thriving defense-industrial sector that’s viewed as one of the world’s elite. But they disagree on how to get there.
Macron is a committed “Europeanist” focused on collaborative defense across the European Union and its partners. Meanwhile, Le Pen is a staunch nationalist, with a protectionist platform that would prioritize military procurement offers for French companies only, and limit Paris’ involvement in intergovernmental alliances like NATO.
Macron, the startup supporter
Macron was elected in 2017 after founding his own party, La Republique en Marche (or Republic on the Move), as a pro-European coalition that could unite elements of both left and right national politics. In the five years since, his administration has participated in joint European defense efforts, supporting the European Defence Fund created in 2017, and contributing to the EU’s recently released “Strategic Compass” document.
Should the French reelect Macron, analysts forecast a continuation of his administration’s efforts to invest in emerging technology and to develop innovative mechanisms to encourage tech startups to launch in France — and keep them there.
Under his administration, the French Armed Forces Ministry launched its own Defence Innovation Agency in 2018, and the government created new funding channels to provide startups with greater access to capital.
In addition, Macron and French military leaders have been major proponents of digitizing the military, said Simona Soare, a research fellow for defense and military analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“This has been something that France has been incredibly invested in over the last four years,” she told Defense News. “We know what the trajectory is for the Macron presidency.”
Going it alone under Le Pen
Meanwhile, Le Pen’s program would reduce France’s connections to other European nations and intergovernmental bodies, including NATO and the EU. For many years she’s sought a closer relationship with Moscow and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Wednesday’s debate against Macron, she called Russia’s war in Ukraine “not admissible,” but reinforced her push to grow closer to Russia in order to keep Moscow and Beijing from forming their own superpower. Her concern is that China and Russia would otherwise become an economic, monetary and military superpower, “which would constitute an absolutely major threat ... for Europe and for France.”
She also responded to Macron’s accusations that she is on the Kremlin payroll — due to her party taking a loan from a Czech-Russian bank known to be cozy to Russian leadership — by stating that no French bank would offer her party a loan.s
“With Le Pen in power, it will be incredibly difficult to maintain unity within the [NATO] alliance on any efforts — from supporting Ukraine to cooperating on tech,” said Lauren Speranza, director of the Transatlantic Defense and Security program at the Center for European Policy Analysis. “Given her nationalist, anti-EU platform, she would be a disruptive figure and veto power in Brussels, thwarting NATO and EU efforts from within.”
Le Pen’s campaign statement on defense matters reveals a desire to renegotiate military partnerships, notably with Germany, the United States, the United Kingdom and Italy.
In the statement, Le Pen accuses Macron of abandoning the French defense industry in his pursuit of joint projects with Germany. She calls for ceasing military cooperation with Berlin, and withdrawing from the ongoing Franco-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System program, along with the Main Ground Combat System next-generation tank under development by Paris and Berlin.
The future of the FCAS program is already in doubt, with industry leaders recently sharing that the effort has stagnated amid workshare discussions surrounding the fighter jet pillar. But the program is crucial to set the tone for future joint European projects, Soare noted.
“There’s a lot of pressure right now on the French and German governments to recover that project and set it back onto a good path, or face the idea that we’re not going to have a European continental next-generation air combat sensor system,” she said.
On the U.K. side, Le Pen calls for “tangible proof” from London that it wants a stronger alliance with Paris following the fallout of the so-called AUKUS agreement made last fall.
Under the deal between Australia, the U.K. and the United States, the Pacific nation will receive support to build a conventionally armed, nuclear-powered submarine, and the three nations will work together to develop advanced military capabilities. Australia canceled a deal with France for a submarine capability after it signed the AUKUS agreement, angering Paris in the process.
Such proof could include Britain deciding to buy French-made Exocet anti-ship missiles to replace its aging Harpoon missiles. Otherwise, she has threatened to withdraw from the “One MBDA” initiative with the U.K., in which the French and British subsidiaries signed an agreement in 2015 to create a common industrial missile sector. MBDA is made up of French company Airbus, U.K. firm BAE Systems and Italian business Leonardo. The European consortium is currently developing the Sea Venom lightweight, anti-ship missile to equip the French and British Royal navies.
It’s more feasible for Le Pen to cancel individual programs if she’s looking to cease joint cooperation projects, rather than try to separate major pan-European business, such as Airbus from MBDA, said Dan Darling, a senior analyst at Forecast International.
France previously walked away from joint efforts that didn’t live up to its expectations, a la the Eurofighter Typhoon program, which Paris left in 1985 to pursue its own fighter jet design — eventually becoming the Rafale.
But canceling major programs and investing in solo projects would require a massive increase in France’s defense budget to make up the difference, Darling noted.
“Now, everything from clean-sheet design to the development phase to serial production and procurement would fall on your shoulders,” Darling explained. “And then, if you’re France, you’re hoping that export orders are going to make up all the difference.”
Le Pen’s proposal calls for a €55 billion (U.S. $60 billion) annual defense budget through 2027, a 34% increase over the 2022 defense budget. If elected, she also wants to create a sovereign wealth fund to support defense programs and promote the export of French equipment.
NATO and the Russian contention
Le Pen has called for France to leave NATO’s integrated military command structure, meaning Paris would still respond to the alliance’s collective defense commitments under Article 5, but its military personnel would no longer be assigned to NATO’s command structure, nor would its units be placed under NATO command.
Indeed, there is precedent for this move: Then-President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the integrated military structure in 1966 while remaining in NATO; the nation officially rejoined the structure in 2009 under then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Le Pen also wants to renegotiate and revise Paris’ military relationship with Washington and Rome, while seeking a new alliance with Moscow. “European security cannot exist without [Russia],” she has said.
A Le Pen government that is naturally more inclined to partner with Russia — or at least more neutral with the Kremlin — will inevitably undermine cohesion within consensus-driven NATO, said Nicholas Nelson, a senior fellow with CEPA’s Transatlantic Defense and Security program.
That would hinder the alliance’s progress ongoing investments in emerging and disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and quantum tech, as well as allies’ and partners’ interoperability, he noted.
Data protectionism is also a priority for Le Pen, and she has called for French data to be hosted exclusively by French or European cloud services. “This would have restricting implications for how NATO shares and stores information, conducts cyber activities, fosters interoperability, and modernizes its networks and communication structures with new technologies,” Speranza said.
As Macron is more pro-European and pro-tech in his approach to promoting French innovation, his reelection would not drastically impede NATO’s nascent tech cooperation efforts, she added.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.