John Lichfield For Members

OPINION: Macron must earn the role of '21st-century Churchill'

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron must earn the role of '21st-century Churchill'
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech in Prague, on March 5, 2024. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

French president Emmanuel Macron sees parallels between the current Ukraine situation and the Munich conference of 1938 - but if he wants to take on the role of the modern Winston Churchill, he will first need to earn the trust of his Nato allies, argues John Lichfield.


There was puzzlement last week when President Emmanuel Macron raised the possibility of direct action by Nato to prevent a Russian victory in Ukraine.

Had the President meant what he said? Was he really preparing political and public opinion for the possibility of a Russia-Nato war? Why make such a dramatic shift in policy in unscripted comments at the end of a press conference?

After Macron’s follow-up comments during a visit to Prague on Tuesday, the position was clearer. The French President, who was once accused of being soft on Russia, is now the self-appointed leader of the hawk faction in the western alliance.

“We are definitely approaching a moment in our Europe where there will be no place for cowards,” he told an audience of French ex-pats in Prague. “No one wants to face up to imminent calamities… but we have to be on the right side of history with all of the courage that that implies”.


Russian ambitions had, Macron said, become “unstoppable”. Sooner or later, the west would have to stand by its pledge, or its boast, that Russia will not be allowed to win the Ukraine war.

In an interview with Le Monde last week, the French foreign minister, Stéphane Séjourné, compared March 2024 to September 1938. By appeasing Hitler and abandoning Czechoslovakia in Munich, Britain and France had hoped to avoid war. Instead they made an even more terrible war inevitable.

“We are probably at a tipping point,” Séjourné said. Western countries must make a bigger effort to help Ukraine defeat Russia now or pay a calamitous economic and military price to prevent Russian domination in the future.

In other words, for Vladimir Putin, read Adolf Hitler. For Emmanuel Macron, read Winston Churchill. For Neville Chamberlain, read Olaf Scholz.

The cautious German Chancellor was incensed last week by Macron’s “boots-on-the-ground” appeal. One can only imagine what he will think of Macron’s “no time for cowards”.

Does this history lesson make sense? The facts of Munich are disputed by historians to this day. Some argue that Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier might have prevented war in 1939 if they had threatened war in 1938. That appears to be Macron’s interpretation of events – then and now.

He has summoned a conference of the leaders of all French parliamentary parties on Thursday to explain why he has upended Nato doctrine of arms-length war in Ukraine. He will seek the advice of two former presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, on Wednesday.  

What is Macron up to? Does he really want to send French and other combat troops into Ukraine? It appears not.

The present simplistic Nato position – we will go so far and no further - is a gift to Russia, Macron argued in Prague. Better to keep Vladimir Putin guessing with “strategic ambiguity”.

Better to leave open the possibility that Nato countries will, if necessary, send troops into Ukraine, at least in limited back-up roles. Better to rattle sabres than to subside into “defeatism”.


There are three problems with this approach.

First, it has produced strategic confusion as much as strategic ambiguity.

After Macron’s original comments at an Elysée press conference, senior French officials - including foreign minister Séjourné - explained that any boots on the ground would be very limited: trainers and technicians and mine-clearers but not frontline troops.

But that is not what Macron actually said. He said: “In a dynamic situation, nothing should be ruled out. We’ll do everything necessary so that Russia cannot win this war.”

Secondly, Macron seems to have done little to prepare other Nato countries for such a radical change in policy. The suggested new approach emerged in answer to one of the final questions at a press conference.

Thirdly, with the US distracted and divided, Macron wants to fill the leadership vacuum in Europe. But the right to leadership has to be earned.


France has been a rhetorically strong ally of Ukraine from the beginning, it has supplied billions of euros in financial aid in grants and loans to keep the Ukrainian economy afloat. France has, however, lagged far behind the US, Germany and the UK in arming Ukrainian soldiers.

The figures are disputed. The Kiel Institute in Germany consistently undercounts French economic and military efforts in its otherwise useful tracker of western aid.

The Institute says that France has sent only €640 million worth of arms in the last two years. France puts the true figure at €3.8 billion but refuses to give a fully costed list of arms shipments for security reasons.

Even the official French figures lag far behind the weapons supplied by the US (€42.2bn), Germany (€17.7bn) and the UK (€9.1bn).  

For the biggest military power in the EU with a large defence industry, this is a feeble effort. It is explained by years of cuts in conventional defence (now being reversed) and the need to preserve a minimum of armaments in the hands of a French military which is stretched all over the globe.

It is, nonetheless, a feeble effort. Why no tanks and war planes?


The German response to Macron’s original boots-on-the-ground comment was predictable and justified. If you are so scared of a Russian victory, why not send the Ukrainians more weapons? Macron does not have an easy answer to that.

He is right to call for a change in political rhetoric and military doctrine all the same.

Ukraine faces a miserable spring and summer of gradual Russian advance. It faces the prospect of losing US support if Donald Trump is elected in November. It faces a more  immediate loss of American economic and military aid if the de-facto-Putin voices in the US Congress prevail.

Kyiv needs new assurances. Putin needs to be given new warnings. The Europeans, who thought they were signing up for a short war two years ago, need to be reminded that they are in a long and existential struggle for democracy and prosperity.

But how? For all Macron’s talk of European sovereignty, the Europeans can agree on little without leadership from Washington. Germany is divided within itself. Britain is adrift.  


Macron appears to think that he can replace or prop up the broken Franco-German alliance by reaching out to eastern Europe. But the eastern Europeans only trust the US – and then not very much.

Macron is right to want to start the debate. His provocative language is justified. But he is not trusted in other Nato and EU countries to carry the debate forward. That is partly his own fault.


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

weather eye 2024/03/06 17:27
David is one of the best and most innovative geo-strategic thinkers I know. His understanding of past and current wars, and the weapons and strategies used to shape their outcomes, is profound. This has enabled him to make a series of remarkably prescient predictions about the new age of war, that unfortunately are coming true in front of our eyes. Our political and military leaders would greatly benefit from drawing on his knowledge and insight to help them navigate through these perilous times
weather eye 2024/03/06 17:24
If you truly want to understand what is happening read/listen to David Murrin. testimonial copied below: Lord Richards of Herstmonceux, General Richards GCB, CBE, DSO, DL formerly The Chief of the Defence Staff, the professional head of the British Armed Forces.
Steve 2024/03/06 12:50
Yes, I agree with the comment below. I also remember reading about a source in the German administration saying they were tired of France coming up with a new plan for something every three weeks, I think with regard to the EU, but it could equally apply to this manifestation of Macron's hyperactive foreign policy.
Roger Goodacre 2024/03/06 11:18
An alternative view from the generally astute Cambridge Prof Helen Thompson - 'The difference between Macron’s recent rhetoric and French action on Ukraine suggests the subtext is a call to Germany to do what Macron has determined France cannot afford'.

See Also