As President Joe Biden and other world leaders prepare to meet in Europe for a week of G7 and NATO summitry, French Ambassador Philippe Étienne sat down for an interview at his residence in Washington, D.C., this week to discuss France’s expectations for the alliance consultations amid the outbreak of war on Europe’s eastern flank.
Étienne, who has been France’s envoy to Washington since 2019, previously served as French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic advisor (2017-2019), among several other ambassadorial and diplomatic postings to Romania, Germany, Brussels, Belgrade, and Moscow.
Increasing Europe’s strategic autonomy has long been a key goal for Macron—a position that has been reinforced with Russia’s full-scale assault on Ukraine this year. Europe should aim to “depend less on other continents and to be able to decide for itself,” Macron said in March. It was an allusion to his advocacy for Europe to bolster its own defense capabilities alongside those of NATO, and perhaps also a nod to last year’s dustup, when the Biden administration announced it had (secretly) negotiated with Australia and United Kingdom the “AUKUS” defense partnership, which includes selling nuclear-powered submarines to Australia in a deal that displaced a previous French contract.
Macron was furious, and Étienne was briefly recalled to Paris for consultations. After four years of chaos and sometimes hostility towards NATO and Europe from Donald Trump, it was surprising for the French to see the ostensibly pro-NATO, pro-Europe Biden administration negotiate the AUKUS partnership without France’s awareness. While relations between the two allies have since been repaired, there is scar tissue, reinforcing French convictions that Europe should become more self-sufficient, particularly in the military domain.
Biden met with Macron in Rome in an attempt to repair the breach. They emerged with a joint statement Sept. 22, 2021, that Étienne alluded to in our conversation, which stated, in part that “The United States recognizes the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense that contributes positively to global and transatlantic security and is complementary to NATO.”
In our interview, Étienne touched on plans for the NATO Summit in Madrid on June 29-30, during which it will issue its first new strategic concept since 2010; how France sees bolstering EU and NATO capabilities as complementary; and on France’s posture on the war in Ukraine.
On NATO’s pending update of its 10-year-old strategic concept, France’s desire to strengthen the “strategic partnership” of the Alliance and the EU’s own defense initiatives, and on NATO accession for Finland and Sweden:
“It is an important summit because it is a summit which is called to adopt a new strategic concept of NATO,” Étienne said. “The previous one is not anymore adapted to the situation … [This is] still more the case after the brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russia.”
“So the adoption of this new Strategic Concept is in itself a very important result we expect from the NATO summit,” he said. “One important issue for us in France, and for other European nations, and I think for all of us, finally, is an ambitious strategic partnership between the European Union (EU) and NATO, with complementary efforts…Stronger European defenses are good for international security and also for our security as allies.”
France strongly supports the requests by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, considering them net “security providers,” Étienne said. But it is not clear whether Turkish concerns will be resolved by the time of the summit to formally advance their membership.
“Obviously, the context of the war in Ukraine has given a new intensity to the summit in Madrid, including for the [requests for] accession by Sweden and the accession by Finland,” Étienne said. “So we hope that the issues…will be solved as soon as possible.”
“We think that all allies should support these [memberships], of course, because…it’s an asset for all of us – for the allies and for the Alliance itself.”
On France’s posture in Russia’s war against Ukraine:
Macron traveled last week to Kyiv to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The three European leaders were joined in Kyiv by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis. Ahead of the Ukraine trip, Macron visited some of the 500 French troops posted to Romania as part of NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force, and stopped in Moldova, another frontline country. France this week also scrambled about 100 French paratroopers to conduct a surprise airborne exercise in Estonia, after a Russian military helicopter incursion into the Baltic country’s airspace over the weekend and Russian military exercises simulating missile strikes on Estonia.
The visit to Kyiv came one week before the European Union Summit which on Thursday (June 23) granted EU candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova. he four heads of government “made a very strong statement,” Étienne said, urging EU countries to at least be “willing to consider to give Ukraine the status of [EU] candidate country.”
Macron also announced the delivery of another shipment of modern artillery systems, called Caesar, among humanitarian, economic, political and military support that France and other partners are providing Ukraine, Étienne said.
On the prospect of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia to end the fighting:
Macron “explained when he was in Kyiv that basically, it’s Europe, it’s our neighborhood, and at one time we will have to envision negotiations,” Étienne said. “But for the time being, again, we are supporting, by all means, Ukraine, and we are sanctioning Russia. We have adopted a sixth package of sanctions and those sanctions are really, really heavy sanctions. Now we have decided to ban oil imports after coal imports from Russia.”
Asked about a controversial June 3 statement by Macron that “We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means”—a comment interpreted by some as too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin—Étienne said the French president explained that during his visit to Kyiv.
“Our President was asked about his previous statements…and he said…France has – and he personally –have done everything they could to prevent a war,” Étienne said. “Now, we have clearly acted against the Russian aggression…by sanctioning Russia and by supporting Ukraine in all the fields. And of course, when the time comes, and negotiation is possible, we will support it also, including through guarantees for Ukraine.”
On the potential timing of Ukraine-Russia negotiations:
“It doesn’t depend on us, because it will…depend mostly on the ones who have to negotiate,” Étienne said. “And for the time being, Ukraine is defending its territory, and we support Ukraine, its sovereignty, [and] its territorial integrity.”