The war in Ukraine has provided French President Emmanuel Macron an opportunity to drastically rethink the current strategic model of the French army. He advocates abandoning an ‘expeditionary’ model, designed for one-off, time-limited interventions, in favour of strengthening military forces for intense, long-term conflicts.
The French military system has undergone several phases of evolution since the Second World War. At the time of General de Gaulle and the Cold War, priority was given to strengthening national independence from the American and Soviet camps, thanks to two pillars: conscription and nuclear deterrence. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the stakes have gradually changed, and France has adopted what is known as an ‘expeditionary’ model, with the disappearance of compulsory military service in favour of the professionalisation of the army, with the aim of reducing the army’s budget. The major decision was taken at the time of President Jacques Chirac who in 1997 put an end to conscription. The idea was to maintain the French army’s capacity to intervene on an ad hoc basis in external theatres of military operation, mainly in areas and conflicts where France had logistical and technological superiority, such as in Africa—areas described as ‘permissive,’ i.e., where the French army’s freedom of action was important.
The outbreak of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, its entrenchment and duration, with the increasing involvement of Western armies, proves that this model is no longer adequate. As the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Thierry Burkhard, underlined in a parliamentary hearing in July 2022, “Our capacity to be an expeditionary force does not instantly make us suitable for conducting a high-intensity war.” Faced with this observation, decisions had to be taken at the highest level of the state; President Macron broadly conveyed these as “wishes to the Armed Forces,” on 20 January 2023, from the Mont-de-Marsan air base in southwest France.
This is a change in course, as traditionally, the French army follows a roadmap set by a military programming law that, once voted on, governs a period of 7 years. We are currently in the middle of a programming period, since the current law provides for the strategic and financial orientation of the French army for the period from 2019 to 2025. The new direction taken by the French army can be summed up in this formula from the president: it is now a question of
consolidating our core sovereignty, whereas the model of the previous military programming law rather emphasised expeditionary capacity and the fight against terrorism.
The message sent is therefore very clear. We will have to relearn how to wage war, and in a war that is no longer asymmetrical, moving
from a model designed to ensure operations in environments where our freedom of action was strong, to a capacity to evolve in contested environments, facing seasoned adversaries, sometimes technologically formidable on the entire spectrum of conflict.
The war in Ukraine and the Russian adversary is on everyone’s mind, but other zones are also to be taken into account in French strategic thinking as a whole, and in particular the Indo-Pacific zone, where the French have a presence on its many overseas territories.
The consequence of this military reassessment is, first of all, reflected in financial terms: the budget of the French army will be considerably increased. For the next military programming law, which will extend from 2024 to 2030, the total budget will be increased to €400 billion compared to €295 for the previous law, i.e., an increase of about 30%. Efforts will be concentrated first and foremost on maintaining and strengthening the nuclear deterrent force—the element that differentiates French military power from its European neighbours. In a new development, Emmanuel Macron also announced his plan to strengthen French intelligence, to guarantee France’s “autonomy of decision and action.” The “knowledge and anticipation” function should benefit from a 60% increase in its resources, and the military intelligence directorate (Direction du Renseignement Militaire, or DRM) will see its funds double.
But the increased budget is only one part of the change; the purpose behind the budget increase is also radically new. In his speech, the French President revealed the objectives of this change in the military paradigm: to be able to resist long-lasting attacks, which requires a greater availability of equipment and larger stocks of ammunition.
The debates surrounding the sending of military equipment to Ukraine have highlighted the weakness of the French army, which, according to many experts, is not currently able to sustain a major military effort over the long term, in terms of both equipment and ammunition. The management of local crises, which until now justified the famous ‘expeditionary’ model, should, in the future, be entrusted primarily to special forces—which will be reinforced. Finally, the French navy will be the subject of a specific development plan, with the long-awaited launch of a new generation aircraft carrier. Through the reinforcement of these tools, Emmanuel Macron seeks to prepare a position of independence for France: “to act with the Europeans, within NATO, or outside,” and, “if necessary, to ensure the command capabilities that will allow us to carry out a large-scale operation together.”
The efforts announced by the French President give the impression of new investments made in all directions. But according to the military, it is a matter of making up for lost time after decades during which the army’s budget was the poor relation of public policy, to the point of exposing the French armed forces to critical risks in operational terms: inefficiencies; excessive wear and tear of equipment; saturation of human forces.
During the speech delivered at Mont-de-Marsan, Emmanuel Macron crossed a threshold indicating that radical changes lie ahead, for the French government and for its people.