By hinting at European troops in Ukraine, Macron has lobbed a grenade into the status quo

Emmanuel Macron's diplomatic advisers have got used to tearing their hair out at some of his off-the-cuff proposals
Macron's diplomatic advisers have got used to tearing their hair out at some of his off-the-cuff proposals - CHESNOT/GETTY

“France has always stuck to one principle: we support Ukraine but are not waging war on Russia.”

That was the Elysée’s stance on Sunday.

On Monday, however, President Emmanuel Macron appeared to throw that principle to the wind when he announced – to the apparent surprise of 25 leaders gathered for a summit to support the war-torn country – that sending ground troops to Ukraine “must not be ruled out”.

Even for the transgressive French president, the change in tone was noticeable. His diplomatic advisers have become used to tearing their hair out at some of his off-the-cuff proposals, notably his ill-fated call for an international anti-terror coalition against Hamas, which promptly sunk without trace. Was this carefully planned or another example of Macron going off-script?

Either way, since the start of the conflict, the 46-year-old centrist has morphed from Putin pacifier (in June 2022, he warned against humiliating Russia amid failed mediation attempts) to Europe’s sabre-rattler-in-chief.

With Ukraine on the back foot after Russian advances and America’s Congress in a stalemate over releasing $60 billion of aid to Ukraine, Macron is filling the void and taking the lead on Ukraine – at least in words.

“We’re taking over from the United States, we’ve stepped up a gear,” said French general Jérôme Pellistrandi.

“This is a European war,” Mr Macron said on Monday, in a nod to the prospect of Donald Trump’s potential return to White House meaning an end to Washington’s support for Kyiv.

“Should we delegate our future to the American voter?

“The answer is no, whatever their vote. We mustn’t wait to find out what the result is, we must decide now.”

Since Boris Johnson departed No 10, Britain has also toned down its aggression in the stand against Putin – although Rishi Sunak has been in the vanguard of the push to get Western fighter jets to Ukraine.

Racheting up the rhetoric

Little by little, Macron has ratcheted up the rhetoric, even if this has not, say critics, been matched by French arms deliveries. Paris this month pledged €3 billion as part of a long-term security offer to Ukraine. In comparison, Germany has promised and delivered a total of €17.7 billion, while Britain has sent €6.5 billion so far, according to the Kiel Institute.

Even so, Macron has repeatedly shown he is not afraid to cross military red lines despite Russian warnings of dire consequences.

Last year, he was the first leader to send Western-made fighting vehicles to Kyiv in the shape of AMX-10 RCs, the wheeled combat vehicles with a mounted 105mm cannon. A rush from allies would follow.

On Monday, he broke another military taboo with talk of ground troops, and called for a coalition of Western allies prepared to send “tanks, planes and long-range missiles”.

For Gen Pellistrandi, Macron is now deeply convinced of Moscow’s “imperialist vision” and that “our security is also at stake on the battlefield in Ukraine, and if we let Ukraine down, we will only be postponing a terrible reckoning”.

To what end?

A source close to the matter put it bluntly: “The aim is to send a strong strategic signal to the Russians to say: ‘Don’t do anything stupid’”.

Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS), sees his “strategic ambiguity” as above all one of deterrence. Talk of ground troops was an attempt to “show that we are united and robust” and to send a message to Moscow that beyond supplying arms, “the next step is to go on the ground, and you have no chance of winning”.

Allies caught short

Laudable no doubt, but not for the first time, Macron’s go-it-alone approach has caught several allies short, including Britain, which said it had no plans to dispatch soldiers to support Kyiv. Nato’s head said likewise.

The most irked of all has been France’s traditionally close European partner Germany, with whom relations have plunged to record lows over the past year.

Opposites in almost every way, Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have tried and failed to hit it off – even a “fish and beer” weekend last year failed to bridge the gap.

President Macron did not appear to enjoy the fish sandwich he ate alongside Chancellor Scholz
President Macron did not appear to enjoy the fish sandwich he ate alongside Chancellor Scholz - John MACDOUGALL / AFP

Long a sleeping giant, Germany has re-awakened its military ambitions since the Ukraine invasion and refuses to follow France’s lead, putting Gallic noses out of joint.

On the other hand, Scholz’s cautious approach is a source of equal frustration to the thrusting Monsieur Macron, who made it clear his job is to move the goalposts while others – namely Germany – dither.

In another challenge to Germany, Macron pledged to drop his long-held opposition over the use of EU funds for buying military supplies not manufactured in the bloc. In doing so, he was casting Scholz’s refusal to budge on deliveries of long-range Taurus missiles in a particularly harsh light.

“Many of the people who say ‘never, never’ today were the same people who said ‘never, never tanks, never, never planes, never, never long-range missiles, never, never this’ two years ago,” Macron said on Monday, in a pointed reference to German foot-dragging.

“I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We will offer sleeping bags and helmets”.

Macron has form in lobbing a rhetorical grenade in a bid to shake up the status quo. He famously pronounced Nato “brain dead” in remarks supporters insist were ultimately salutary.

“Let’s have the humility to recognise that we have often been six to twelve months behind schedule. That was the aim of tonight’s discussion: anything is possible if it helps us achieve our goal,” he said on Monday.

But given the almost blanket rejection of his latest suggestion, Macron may find himself once again in splendid isolation.