Now here he was, more than a year in, telling a crowd in Slovakia that Western Europe had failed to listen to the east on Russia and praising NATO, the alliance he once said was experiencing brain death.
When France then offered stronger-than-expected support for Ukraine’s bid to join the military alliance, some started to wonder: Had the war changed Macron?
Allies are still wondering.
The question of where Macron and France stand on Ukraine will loom large this week as European leaders gather in Spain to discuss how to bring Ukraine and other countries closer in the months and years ahead.
France wants to be at the forefront of the conversation on European Union enlargement. It espouses strong support for Ukrainian membership in NATO. And it says it will stand with Ukraine “until victory.”
The positions are surprising because France has often expressed ambivalence toward NATO and has previously blocked plans to bring more countries into the E.U. Some analysts have likened it to a “U-turn,” or a French “zeitenwende,” referring to Germany’s major shift on defense spending after the invasion.
But many allies still wonder why it took so long for Macron to come around, or whether he will match word with deed — and weapons — as the war grinds on.
One senior European official said they won’t be convinced until France steps up longer-term support. “Money always speaks to commitment quite well,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive ally dynamics.
“There’s a question of whether it’s been a change in tactic, not strategy,” said Rym Momtaz, a Paris-based consultant research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Tactics can open margins of maneuver,” she continued. “But the question is how he will use this — nobody has the answer yet.”
Macron has long aspired to lead Europe, but he missed the moment on Ukraine, leaving the push to toughen up the Western alliance to Poland and the Baltic nations.
In the run-up to the full-scale invasion and the early days of the war, he outraged allies by continuing to talk to Putin. Afterward, when it came to weapons and money, he ceded leadership to U.S. officials and even Britain’s Boris Johnson.
French officials counter that France’s response was strong from the beginning. They note, for instance, that France was quick to act after the invasion, deploying troops to Romania within days.
But some concede the president’s messaging has been inconsistent. And few deny the war has changed his thinking.
Before February 2022, Macron was skeptical of adding members to the E.U., in part due to concerns about provoking Russia, said Marie Dumoulin, the director of the Wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. That seems to have changed.
In June 2022, Macron visited Ukraine alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italy’s Mario Draghi and others. After touring the sites of alleged Russian atrocities, they vowed to support Ukraine’s E.U. candidacy.
In recent months, Macron has tried to position France as a leader on E.U. enlargement. French and German officials recently introduced a report, written by a team of experts, that explored how Europe might adapt to new members.
Macron now wants France to be “at the vanguard” on enlargement, said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm.
Since the February 2022 invasion, Macron saw his ability to lead in Europe “constrained by the perception that France was not a good ally,” Rahman said. The French president “realizes that this is going to a big, geostrategic change and that France could benefit, so he is making a shift.”
Shaping a new security order
Macron has also repositioned himself on NATO. In his May speech in Bratislava, Slovakia, he walked back his brain-death remark — sort of — saying Putin had jolted NATO back to life.
Macron told the crowd that he, personally, had never been naive about Russia, but Western Europe had indeed failed to heed warnings from the east. He also acknowledged America’s central role in providing materiel and intelligence to Ukraine.
His prescription: a stronger European role in defense — a longtime priority for Macron — and credible security assurances for Ukraine.
At the NATO summit in July, France offered strong support for Ukraine’s bid to join the alliance, surprising some allies, and joined the pledge of the Group of Seven nations to offer longer-term security assurances. Macron also announced that France would deliver long-range SCALP missiles to Ukraine.
French officials do not see the changes as a U-turn, but an “acceleration” of a shift that was already underway. “There’s a deeper trend, which was decided for strategic reasons, which has been accelerated by the war,” said one official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid view on French thinking.
A more hawkish position on Ukraine would be good news for Washington. “If France is a leader in driving Europe to spend more and do more, that is fully in line with what successive administrations have wanted to see,” said Ian Lesser, the vice president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
The apparent French pivot has indeed quieted some criticism from allies. But there’s still a dearth of trust and lingering questions about the depth of this commitment, especially if the conflict continues its grinding descent into a lengthy war of attrition.
Pawel Zerka, an expert on both France and Poland at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said Macron’s speech got positive coverage in the Polish press, but officials and experts remain wary.
Some wonder if, “he might be posturing as the biggest friend of Ukraine, while letting others become the bad guys,” he said. When he describes changes in French thinking to Polish interlocutors, Zerka said, he hits “a wall of incredulity.”
“The reason they are skeptical is that they wonder, ‘If France changed its opinion so quickly, can it reverse?’” he said.
Waiting on ‘concrete steps’
In the weeks and months ahead, allies will be watching to see what Macron delivers.
French officials said they are now fleshing out an agreement with Ukraine as part of the G-7 security pledge. That deal will be a “crucial indicator of whether France has overhauled its policy,” said Momtaz, of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
She wondered if Macron had indeed changed his mind on NATO, or has simply decided that he should show Russia he has. “The jury needs to be out until we have proof, concrete steps,” she said.
Joseph de Weck, the author of a German-language book on Macron, will be watching to see if these issues remain front and center for the French president.
“Macron’s problem often in the past is that his foreign policy is inconsistent. He is tempted by tactical opportunities, but he hates making choices,” he said.
For now, at least, the president understands “that this is the way history is going and that he should join the bandwagon and lead it.”