If European politics was an amusement park, Franco-polish relations would be a roller coaster and a house of mirrors. Over the last three years, bilateral relations between Warsaw and Paris went from one of its highest to one of its lowest points in recent history. The causes and manifestations of the current tensions in diplomatic and political relations are well known. They should not, however, overshadow the substantive economic links and vibrant cultural ties between the two countries. Nor should they lead to discarding or the underestimation of the potential that closer strategic and political relations could bear.
Ties that Bind
The list of the ties that bind Poland and France is extensive. History, culture and trade are obvious and well-explored domains. But this is also true of foreign and security policy, yet easily forgotten. France’s and Poland’s strategic sensors may not be directed towards the same theatres or actors—the south and terrorist groups for the former; the east and territorial defence for the latter—but it remains that, at the end of the day, both belong to the (small) group of European countries that take defence most seriously. Paris and Warsaw might sometimes disagree on how Europe’s strategic capabilities should be used or allocated; but they agree that these capabilities must be reinforced and enhanced.
Furthermore, there is a certain potential for complementarity in France’s and Poland’s positions in the EU. They both have the capacity to act as regional leaders for various groups inside the bloc: France for Member States of the Mediterranean and Poland for those of Central Europe. In addition, Germany is, to both, the most important partner in the EU. They have a cardinal interest in maintaining close relations with Berlin while, at the same time, being both wary not to see Germany become an all-powerful hegemon that would act unilaterally. This geometry means that the two countries need each other, or at least must seek to iron out their differences, in pursuing several of their policy goals at the European level.
This is maybe most evident in the case of Poland. France is the second biggest economy and the first military power in the EU.2 The asymmetry between Germany’s and France’s economic power became more acute after the economic crisis and has affected the leadership dynamics inside the EU. Nevertheless, France retains a substantial political power in the bloc. In fact, on many issues, Berlin has been reluctant to lead alone and it is Paris’ collaboration that it has sought in priority: whether in their responses to the Ukraine crisis or, more recently, to the change of administration in Washington, the level of coordination between the two capitals has been quite remarkable. For instance, in a symbolic move in early March, the two political directors of the German and French MFAs chose to travel to Washington together to meet the new U.S. administration. In addition, with its permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and its extensive diplomatic network, France also retains global reach beyond the European context.3 Particularly if Poland gets elected to the UNSC as a non-permanent member, as seems likely, the UN Security Council is a venue where the two countries will need to cooperate more closely.
France too needs Poland. Because Poland is the biggest state in Central Europe and can act as a leader for the region, securing Warsaw’s backing for French initiatives in the EU could help generate support from the other Central European Member States. This is also why the Weimar Triangle format, if unleashing its real potential rather than functioning suboptimally, could be a decisive vector in harmonising EU Member States’ positions and in coordinating common action with respect to the different sensitivities represented there. What is more, consolidating and developing the Franco-Polish side of the Weimar format would not only serve to re-equilibrate the triangle but also reinforce Paris’ and Warsaw’s respective positions in their own bilateral relationship with Berlin.
Poland is also of substantive importance to French economic interests, both as a trading partner and a market. In 2015, Poland was France’s 10th trading partner (both for exports and imports).4 It is worth noting that France’s trade volume with Poland is greater than that with Russia or Japan. Also, France is the fourth biggest recipient of Polish exports. France’s investment in Poland is also sizeable: nearing €18 billion in 2015, French FDI is the fourth highest in the country.5 Nearly 900 French businesses are present in Poland and they employ more than 200,000 people. All this underlines both the current significance and future potential of Poland for French businesses.
Beyond trade and investment, Poland also represents a promising industrial and technological partner for France, particularly in the domains of nuclear energy, transport infrastructure and armament. As envisaged in the programmatic declaration signed by the two countries in November 2013, big contracts in these areas do not represent mere commercial transactions; they could constitute the basis for a deeper strategic partnership.6 Although the bilateral relationship should not be summed up to this domain, the defence industry is obviously of particular significance in this regard in light of Poland’s long-term programme of modernisation of its military.
In summary, whether in terms of political dynamics and equilibrium inside the EU, trade and investments, or industrial and defence cooperation, Poland is an important European partner for France. All of these considerations were, in fact, present in Paris’ efforts to solidify and develop its ties with Warsaw in the first years of the Hollande presidency. During that period, the French government multiplied high-level visits to Warsaw and it is in this context that the Strategic Cooperation Programme was signed. This renewed political engagement was in part driven by objectives related to the EU context (e.g., the desire to promote France’s growth agenda and counter-balance Germany’s push for austerity policies, willingness to team up with Poland in the 2014-2020 budget negotiations, etc.) and by the new impetus given by Paris to economic diplomacy.7 It was also made possible, however, by the parallel evolutions of France’s and Poland’s foreign policies at the time.
Misperceptions that Divide
As was emphasised, not only do Poland and France share some orientations or characteristics, they also need each other to some extent. Yet, the Franco-Polish relationship has often been characterised by missed opportunities, discrepant initiatives, and punctual disputes escalating into lasting tensions. This is because, in spite of structural links and reciprocal needs, the tissue of the relationship has not been sufficiently healthy. Resilient misperceptions have often fed misunderstandings and, at times, mistrust. Such misperceptions were especially salient in the 2000s in France’s approach towards Poland and, since the beginning of the 2010s, in Poland’s approach towards France.
In a way, both countries have at times given the impression they were stuck with the image they had forged of each other during the Iraq crisis of 2003. The mental maps, labels and captious opposition that characterised this period installed themselves in the European political imagination and acquired a life of their own that was often disconnected with reality.
In the 2000s, France took too long to fully integrate Poland and other Central European countries in its foreign policy software. Initially, as noted by a long-term observer of France’s European policies, Paris sometimes acted in the EU as if the 2004 enlargement had not really happened.8 Comparatively, Germany has been faster and more efficient in engaging with Central European Member States, and thus in turning them into punctual allies in Brussels. Since, though, as seen by its contribution to NATO’s strategic reassurance measures, France has come a long way in factoring in Central European sensitivities and concerns. It was, in fact, particularly noteworthy that, during the Ukraine crisis, some of these concerns were mentioned even in French internal debates.9
Furthermore, the image of Poland as an exclusive Atlanticist, if not a Trojan horse of U.S. interests in Europe10, somehow stuck in France throughout the 2000s. This representation was based on some of Poland’s positions from the beginning of the decade (especially in the context of the Iraq crisis) but endured beyond that time. As such, it prevented Paris from appreciating fully the scope of Poland’s investment in EU foreign policy structures of the late 2000s11, at least until the aforementioned Hollande initiative.
Misperceptions have also been present on Poland’s side, especially to this day. The representation of France as being “anti-NATO” and “pro-Russian” seems to persist to some extent in Polish policy debates, even though it does not correspond to the country’s actual foreign policy orientations. France returned to NATO’s command structures in 2009 and, even before that, had consistently been one of the largest troop contributors to the Alliance’s operations. This return or its co-leadership role in NATO’s intervention in Libya are, in fact, the hallmarks of France’s endeavour to re-position itself at the core of the Alliance and of the transatlantic relationship more generally at a time where these contexts are changing.12 This involves a more comprehensive approach towards the Allies’ strategic perceptions and priorities, including that of Central European countries, as was demonstrated by France’s significant contribution to NATO’s 2013 Steadfast Jazz exercise in Poland and the Baltic states. Together, Paris and Warsaw contributed more than one third of the total number of troops deployed. Overall, France wants the Alliance to be flexible and centred on the military contributions of its member states rather than on NATO bureaucratic machinery.
This consolidation of its position within NATO has been paralleled by sustained strategic activism and a rapprochement with the U.S. Since 2011, alone or in conjunction with its allies, France has intervened militarily in Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, the Central African Republic, the Sahel, Iraq and Syria. For most of these operations, the U.S. has been a prime partner. The level, depth and density of the Franco-American strategic collaboration has in recent years attained unprecedented level—to the extent that it is common to have U.S. officials describing France as Washington’s staunchest security ally in the fight against terrorism.13 This activism is, in part, explained by French strategic elites’ concerns over the parallel trends of the U.S. temptation for strategic retrenchment and of acute instabilities in areas crucial to France’s geopolitical interests (Middle East and Africa). In this context, France has resorted to small-to-medium military interventions both to prevent seeing countries of these regions turned into training grounds for terrorists and to demonstrate to Washington the will and capacity to take on some of the burden of international security.14
The perception (and sometimes accusations) of France as being inherently and blindly “pro-Russian” are equally unfounded. This label might tentatively apply to some members of the French political or business classes, but not to the current government, the foreign policy elites, the mainstream media or public opinion.15 More concretely, France’s response to the Ukraine crisis has been determined and, above all, European: it has suspended its annual bilateral strategic meetings with Moscow, cancelled the delivery of Mistral-class warships to Russia, supported the EU sanctions regime and co-led the conflict resolution efforts conducted in the “Normandy format”.16 The cancelation of the Mistral contract carried political, economic and financial costs and so was opposed by various domestic actors, but it sent a strong message to its European and transatlantic partners. Just as France seemingly failed to fully appreciate Poland’s European turn of the late 2000s, Poland seemingly fails to fully appreciate France’s response to the Ukraine crisis.
The conflict in Ukraine has put, rather understandably, Poland on strategic alert. Some of the choices made since (and the way they were made) have, however, conveyed the impression to other EU capitals that Warsaw attaches little credence to the quality of its relationship with other Member States, or to European solidarity more generally, seemingly giving priority instead to domestic political considerations and to bilateral links with Washington, even though the Trump administration seems poised to seek to play the European states against one another. In France, for instance, the disappointment was palpable around the discrepancy between the solidarity steps taken by France in the context of the Ukraine crisis and Poland’s feeble response to Paris’ activation of the solidarity clause of the EU treaty after the Paris attacks of November 2015. More profoundly, the negative impression mentioned above has only been reinforced by Poland’s dismissal of commercial and diplomatic customs in the Caracal dossier.
There are many ties that bind France and Poland and they need each other to some extent in the pursuit of their European policies. Even when the current diplomatic deadlock is overcome, unleashing the true potential of this bilateral relationship will, however, require moving past enduring myths and resilient misperceptions. A certain sense of urgency should be emphasised in this regard: because Europe is at a critical juncture, so are Franco-Polish relations. In the end, the EU is both the main context and the principal raison d’être of this relationship: the disengagement or self-isolation of one of the two states from this context would irremediably decrease its importance to the other.
1TAPIR Visiting Fellow, Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), and Associate, LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics.
2France has always closely competed with the UK for these standings, but Brexit will in all likelihood settle the score of this contest once and for all.
8C. Lequesne, “La France dans la Nouvelle Europe: assumer le changement d’échelle,” Presses de Sciences Po, 2008.
10K. Pomorska, “Poland: learning to play the Brussels game,” [in] R. Wong, C. Hill, National and European Foreign Policy: Towards Europeanization, Routledge, 2011, p. 183.
11See: C. M. O’Donnell, “Poland’s U-turn on European Defense: A Missed Opportunity?”, in US-Europe Analysis Series: Number 53, Washington, DC: Brookings Institu¬tion, March 2012; D. Cadier, “La présidence polonaise ou la fin de la ‘nouvelle Europe,’” Le Monde, 12 July 2011.
12J. Howorth, “‘Opération Harmattan’ in Libya: a paradigm shift in French, European and transatlantic security arrangements?”, Journal of Transatlantic Studies, Vol. 12, Iss. 4, 2014, pp. 405-417.