In early May 2022, French President Emmanuel Macron went on television to wax lyrical about one of his most treasured crusades: European defence. Standing in front of the Ukrainian, EU and French flags, he spoke of a new era of military self-reliance.
“We can no longer depend on others to feed us, care for us, inform us, finance us,” he opined. “We cannot depend on others to defend us, whether on land, at sea, under the sea, in the air, in space or in cyberspace. In this respect, our European defence must take a new step forward.”
Yet, five months on, France’s military contribution to Kyiv’s efforts remains laughable. According to the BBC, recent analysis conducted on the ground in Poland and Ukraine shows that the French share of foreign arms deliveries is less than 2%, way behind the US on 49%, but also behind Poland (22%) and Germany (9%).
When did France become so irrelevant in the fight against Putin?
Part of the problem is one of inadequate resources. France’s military stock has indeed been run down since the end of the Cold War, while much of its available weapons are needed across other parts of the world such as the Sahel and the Indo-Pacific.
Nonetheless, the optics are very bad. Macron is running a very real risk of becoming militarily irrelevant in Ukraine, a big problem for a country that wants to create a European army. On the other hand, one could argue that this shambles is the ultimate evidence of why Europe’s military revival is so needed. France’s military paucity is quite shocking.
While that is all well and good, others might contend that the real problem here is strategy; more specifically, that France is too soft on Russia. It is certainly true that Macron has a special relationship with Vladimir Putin, with whom he has had numerous one-to-one conversations (indeed, how can we ever forget the world’s most awkward dinner table conversation?). While not quite an appeaser in the style of Neville Chamberlain, Macron is not far off.
Not only has his country been slow to sacrifice weapons, it has been extremely lacklustre in its corporate exodus from Russia. A few months ago, companies from France were among those who had taken the least action in Russia, proportionately speaking, alongside businesses from the EU’s first electoral-autocracy: Hungary. That remains true today. The shame.
But aren’t other Western superpowers doing even worse? According to the Kyiv School of Economics, US companies continue to employ 251,294 people in Russia, while French companies employ 123,642 and German companies employ 91,280. The catch here, however, is that unlike US and German companies, French ones are far less numerous (proportionately speaking) among those companies that have committed themselves to a clean break from Russia.
French companies are not willing to take the hit
Little wonder, therefore, that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has been so publicly critical of French businesses, urging them to leave Russia in his video address to the French parliament in late March: “[Carmaker] Renault, [supermarket chain] Auchan and [DIY chain] Leroy Merlin have to stop being the sponsors of the Russian war machine – values are more important than profits,” he said.
Meanwhile, Macron has done very little to pressure or incentivise companies such as these to leave.
Apologists say that French businesses in Russia tend to be active in more labour-intensive services sectors than their US, German and Italian counterparts. Practically speaking, therefore, it is more difficult for their companies to leave than others. It is, indeed, easier to pull out of Russia when your business is small.
France’s Leroy Merlin alone, for instance, has roughly 100 stores and 45,000 employees in Russia. Major French companies such as Merlin have made the argument that it would be unethical for them to abandon their thousands of employees, or claim that divestment from Russia would only benefit the Russia state, since it would expropriate its assets (as the Kremlin has threatened).
Large companies from other countries, however, have made the sacrifice. McDonald’s divested, for example. French companies are just too scared to take necessary financial hits. With Macron’s tacit blessing, they have exceptionally little leadership.
In light of the recent news that Western companies in Russia now have to help the Kremlin with military conscription, France’s labour-intensive companies can no longer hide behind ethical red herrings and avoid the obvious truth: that, for them, the lives of Ukrainian civilians matter less than profit margins, Russian employees and, most shockingly, the Russian army.