Military thrust in pursuit of ‘greatness’

Print edition : March 16, 2018

President Emmanuel Macron reviews troops before delivering his New Year wishes to the armed forces on the French warship Dixmude at the naval base in Toulon on January 19. Photo: JEAN-PAUL PELISSIER/REUTERS

Policemen and soldiers patrol Trocadero Square in Paris in September 2017 as part of Operation Sentinelle, which has reinforced the normalisation of a visible, enduring military presence. Photo: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

Labour union workers attend a demonstration to protest against Carrefour’s (a French multinational retailer) plans to cut 2,400 jobs in France, at Carrefour Hypermarket store in Montreuil, near Paris on February 5. Photo: REGIS DUVIGNAU/REUTERS

President Emmanuel Macron blasts the bugle for compulsory national service and a giant hike in military spending. Although couching the message in a register more nuanced and eloquent than that favoured by his Washington counterpart, Macron is at one with Donald Trump in his quest for a return to national “greatness”.

The past couple of weeks have seen French President Emmanuel Macron in full combat mode. First came the unfurling, on February 8, of his Draft Military Planning Law for the 2019-25 period. This announced a jaw-dropping increase in France’s military spending over the next seven years, aimed at bringing it in line with the 2 per cent of gross domestic product threshold decreed by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and endorsed by the European Union (E.U.).

Then, on February 13, came the President’s chance to expand on his pledge, made during his election campaign last year, to reintroduce compulsory national service. Addressing a group of political journalists, Macron confirmed that the form of “national service” he favoured would indeed be both universal and compulsory. This contradicted comments by his Armed Forces Minister, Florence Parly, a few days earlier in which she had played down the likelihood of a compulsory element.

Beyond this, however, the President remained tight-lipped, referring only to a possible “military” component, a likely obligatory length of between three and six months, and an “equal opportunity” service ensnaring girls as well as boys. This haziness in relation to details contrasts with the clarity of the mission statement Macron made during his election campaign: to make all young people spend time getting “a direct experience of military life, with its know-how and demands”.

What factors, beyond Macron’s Napoleonic pretensions, underlie this revival of the notion of compulsory national service as a credible, feasible option for France?

First, it is important to remember how recently young French males were still being forced into military service: it was only in 1996 that the practice began to be phased out, ending finally in 2001. Among those lucky enough to escape its clutches by virtue of year of birth was Macron himself: the first French President not to have been called up to serve in the army.

Historical factors help explain this stubborn adherence to a practice long dispensed with elsewhere. France was the first modern nation state to introduce universal military conscription as a condition of citizenship; the practice dates back to the French Revolution and the compelling need to defend it via mass military mobilisation. In subtle ways, and over an extended period, the obligation to serve and the readiness to forgo personal objectives in favour of national need have been melded into the fabric of the “Republic”, the core signifier and symbol of French identity.

That still leaves us with the question, why now? What elements in France’s current circumstances might be contributing to this attempt to resurrect (if in modified form) a seemingly anachronistic practice out of step with contemporary times?

Three aspects merit particular attention. The first is the rising profile of the French military, in step with a process of militarisation at home (including, since 2015, a de facto permanent state of emergency) and abroad (the global reassertion of French military power). This thrust is receiving particular impetus under Macron’s presidency. The second concerns the obstinately high level of youth unemployment in France. The third relates to the multiple forms of dislocation French society is experiencing as austerity and neoliberal “reforms” cut ever deeper into its fabric. Among the casualties are long-established traditions of social solidarity and older, looser interpretations of “laicite” (secularism) that couched the idea principally in terms of equal treatment for all. This has opened the way for a French form of “culture wars”: the divide-and-rule stock in trade of elites and governments attempting to bring recalcitrant populations into line. In the French context, a renewed emphasis on “national identity” is emerging as a key aspect of this offensive.

What appears to be emerging from the interplay of these elements is a national revivalism of sorts, a sotto voce Gallic rendition of current trans-Atlantic exhortations. Although couching the message in a register more nuanced and eloquent than that favoured by his Washington counterpart, Macron is at one with Donald Trump in his quest for a return to national “greatness”.


Macron’s vision of the “France of the future” is nowhere spelled out more clearly than in his just-announced military planning law. Between now and 2025, total spending on the military is set to reach 198 billion euros. There will be year-on-year increases of 1.7 billion euros up to 2022 and of three billion euros thereafter. This will take the armed forces budget from an average of 32.2 billion euros per annum (for the 2014-18 period) to 39.6 billion euros per annum by 2023. “All in all, the resources awarded to the armed forces will increase by almost a quarter (+23%)” (Ministere des Armees, synopsis of Draft Military Planning Law 2019/2025, #2).

What is this greatly enhanced level of spending geared to achieve? In a speech at Toulon on January 18, Macron shared this vision with his defence community audience:

“I want a strong France able to control its destiny, protect its citizens and its interests, guarantee its defence and security and, at the same time, propose global responses to the crises we face. I want a France that helps and protects the victims of obscurantism or terrorism, that makes its voice heard beyond our borders. I want a France that is faithful to its commitments in the Atlantic Alliance, but which is also the engine of European strategic autonomy. To achieve this, we must have a full-spectrum, strong, modern and powerful defence apparatus, implemented by forward-looking armed forces with the capacity to respond fast” (emphasis added).

This rapturous embrace of scaled-up military spending reveals the Macron government’s full-throttle pursuit of current E.U. policy directives. “Regularly increasing defence budgets in real terms” heads the list of 20 commitments that 23 E.U. member states signed up for on November 13 of last year in Brussels. This joint declaration called upon the European Council to establish a Permanent Structured Cooperation on defence; with lightning speed this was done within a month. Macron is no less gung-ho about the projected European Defence Fund, a long-term project to coordinate and amplify national investments in military research, the development of prototypes and the acquisition of equipment and technology. All of this feeds into a hubristic vision of France as a central player in the E.U. of the future: one bristling with armaments, plump with juicy defence contracts and ready for action anywhere.

In the meantime, France is to be readied to assume additional global “responsibilities”. Already deeply implicated in West Asian battle zones, particularly those in Syria and Iraq, France under Macron has set about raising its military profile in Africa. Since late 2017, it has been providing air support to the G5 Sahel Force, a multinational military grouping comprising units from Chad, Niger, Mali, Burkina Faso and Mauritania; despite its billing as an “African solution to African problems”, the force is heavily dependent on its French backer. Further north, recent French military interventions have targeted human traffickers and slave traders as part of an ongoing effort to stem the flow of refugees entering Europe.

At home, Operation Sentinelle is reinforcing the normalisation of a visible, enduring military presence. Set up following the January 2015 Ile de France terrorist attacks and expanded following the attacks in Paris later that year, Sentinelle involves the nationwide deployment of 10,000 soldiers and 4,700 police and gendarmes to protect sensitive “points” from terrorism. Opinion polls continue to show very high levels of popular support for this “boots on the streets” presence: a poll conducted by IFOP-DICoD in October 2017 found support for Operation Sentinelle running at 83 per cent, a rise of eight percentage points in just one year.

Youth unemployment

A persistently high level of unemployment among people aged 15-24 is a defining feature of contemporary France. Figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development reveal the intractability of the problem: over the recent past, French youth unemployment has hovered between 24.6 per cent (2016) and 22.3 per cent (2017). While “low” compared with the figures for Greece (45.2 per cent), Spain (41.5 per cent) and Italy (35.2 per cent), youth unemployment in France is well above the average for eurozone members (18.65 per cent as of October 2017) and is in a different league from that of other non-periphery eurozone members such as Germany (6.6 per cent) and Holland (9.7 per cent).

Things become more alarming still when French national data are disaggregated in terms of young people’s socio-economic background. In the banlieues—the so-called “zones urbaines sensibles”, or sensitive urban zones—youth unemployment rises to a staggering 45 per cent.

Stubbornly high levels of unemployment among the young have a tendency to stimulate patronising and authoritarian responses from those in places of power and comfort. Back in 2013, British Conservative Member of Parliament Philip Hollobone banged the drum for a Bill to dragoon unemployed Britons between the ages of 16 and 18 into state service. Similar initiatives have surfaced in the United States from time to time. Macron’s Big Idea may well have elements in common with these ill-fated attempts to haul young people to their feet and pitch them into the “real world”—even when few worthwhile prospects await them there.

Neoliberalism and social dislocation

The mooting of compulsory national service as a feasible option for 21st century France also needs to be seen in the context of larger political and social processes, particularly those connected with, or originating from, France’s specific experience of austerity and neoliberal “reform”. Dislocating pressures on French society are intensifying as austerity tightens its grip and neoliberal policies penetrate more deeply. Such dislocation is taking place in tandem with a full-spectrum political crisis that has seen the collapse of French social democracy and the weakening of France’s traditional party of the Right. As elsewhere in Europe, a space has been opened for a resurgence of the extreme Right, whose ideas readily surface in the declarations of mainstream political figures, including those laying claim to “liberal” credentials. Among the casualties of this rightward political and ideological shift can be counted traditional forms of social solidarity and “being together”. Concepts such as laicite have been reinterpreted and reframed to bring them in line with a new national paradigm: one which increasingly sets the “nation” against the “enemy”, whether abroad or “within”.

In this context, the call for a return of obligatory national service (with an implicit disciplinary component) acquires added significance. Rounding up the young in the service of the “nation” becomes a way of lassoing them in to the wider neoliberal project, inveigling them into a military career, or, in the case of the banlieues, subjecting them to scrutiny via a French version of Prevent. The possibilities are endless: Macron is no doubt exploring them all.

(In association with Counterfire.