France won’t pretend everything is OK with NATO, Philippe says

Rosalind Mathieson and Chad Thomas

France can’t keep pretending all is right within NATO, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said, another sign it will continue its public critique of an entity that’s been Europe’s security umbrella since World War II.

Speaking on Tuesday at an interview in his offices in Paris, Philippe defended President Emmanuel Macron’s comments – he said last week that NATO is suffering a “brain death” – which have spurred a backlash from leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and senior officials in eastern Europe.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe arrives at a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe on Monday Nov. 11, 2019.

“To question what this alliance is for, to question its ability to respond to the great challenges of the world today, this too seems appropriate to me,” Philippe said. “To do so in striking terms seems to me to be useful in stimulating debate.”

Macron on Tuesday said world powers must not be “lazy” in efforts to overhaul global institutions. “I’ve perhaps offended a few people here in recent days or weeks. I think we need truth: Prudishness and hypocrisy doesn’t work these days,” he said at a conference in Paris. “Laziness – intellectually or in action – is not a solution.”

Europe Expands Defense Projects Amid Macron Warnings on NATO

The French president’s recent remarks reflect his desire for a more independent foreign policy in Europe, one that relies less on the U.S. or NATO. He has pushed for a while for Europe to deepen its own military integration.

He has also shown unease over NATO member Turkey’s recent military operation against Kurdish fighters inside Syria. Macron said in Brussels last month NATO had made “a heavy mistake” in its handling of Turkey’s behavior on Syria.

But the public way he is critiquing NATO has also raised questions about whether he could end up undermining it. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told the Financial Times that Macron’s actions were “dangerous,” calling NATO “the most important alliance in the world when it comes to preserving freedom and peace.”

The sniping comes as NATO prepares for a brief summit in the U.K. next month to mark its 70th anniversary, where Macron is expected to further set out his concerns.

That could see him aligned somewhat with U.S. President Donald Trump, who has also been a frequent critic of NATO, albeit for somewhat different reasons. Trump says America has shouldered too much of NATO’s defense budget for too long. And he’s created tensions with traditional allies via his “America First” policy. His Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said earlier this month that NATO risked becoming irrelevant.

French President Emmanuel Macron waits to welcome Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita prior to their meeting at the Elysee Palace, in Paris Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2019.

Macron Bid to Be Europe’s Leader Means Bruises for French Allies

Despite Trump’s rhetoric, U.S. commitments of troops and money to Europe’s defense have increased at a faster pace, and NATO has been more active in deploying forces for potential collective defense during his administration, than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

Asked about France’s future commitment to NATO, Philippe spoke about the deployment of its troops in operations both within and outside the organization’s remit. In doing so he cited “other European countries which are sometimes very vocal about their attachment to the American umbrella but less present when it comes to direct intervention.”

France’s Defense Minister Florence Parly told parliament on Wednesday there were "serious doubts" about the U.S. security guarantee under Article 5, which deals with the principle of collective defense.

"There are serious questions about allied security when Turks are attacking those fighting Daesh and then there is a screaming lack of EU funding," she added, using another term for Islamic State.

Macron is looking to flag these matters in the run up to the summit, Parly said, and plans to meet Trump beforehand. "It’s healthy to have real strategic thinking with allies and on the strength of our commitment within it. We will soon make proposals for that."

Speaking in the interview, Philippe did not reference a country by name. But he said NATO had issues within its ranks.

“To put it in diplomatic terms, yes, there are attitudes that are rather uncooperative between NATO countries,” he said.

“We can all pretend that the alliance is doing tremendously well, we can try not to see the uncooperative attitude of some of its members, we can all try not to see the unpredictable attitudes of a number of allies. But this attitude, this difficulty, this question, it exists,” he added. “So let us ask it, and let us ask it publicly, because the questions of sovereignty and security are profoundly democratic.”

With assistance from Helene Fouquet, Geraldine Amiel and Ania Nussbaum.