In a month’s time, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will visit Paris, embracing his role as the guest of honour at France’s annual Bastille Day parade and marking 25 years of strategic partnership between the two countries.

While it may not get the headlines or attention garnered by the Quad, Indo-French relations have grown steadily over the last few decades, both in terms of significance and substance, with one Indian commentator even likening the partnership to the Indo-Soviet compact from the 1970s.

The ties are now also spilling over into “mini-laterals”, like the India-France-UAE joint military exercises that took place for the first time in the Gulf of Oman last week, as well as the India-France-Australia trilateral.

Underpinning this relationship is a shared concern about growing Chinese assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific, a region where France considers itself a “resident power”, in part thanks to its overseas territories. Which is why it was so surprising when French President Emmanuel Macron returned from a visit to Beijing early this year appearing to spout Chinese talking points about tensions in the Indo-Pacific and a potential Taiwan crisis.

Some insisted Macron’s actual comments were a bit more nuanced (and reflected a strain of European thought): He reiterated his longstanding call for European strategic autonomy and a need to not be overly dependent on American security, and he appeared to be seeking to reduce tensions at a time when some American commentators seem to be gunning for war.

Yet at the same time, Macron also seemed to give equal weight to US and Chinese positions on Taiwan, even though only one of those nations seems likely to carry out an invasion. The comments caused consternation across the continent as well as in the US and in India.

This is all part of the “Macron Method”, insists Tara Varma, a French scholar who is currently visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. The French President enjoys throwing out ideas and concepts that might rock the boat, even if it angers France’s allies and partners, since it keeps him in the headlines.

I spoke to Varma about the “Macron method”, how his team was so focused on what China could do to influence the Ukraine situation that they didn’t take into account the reaction his comments might have in places like Delhi, why French and European “strategic autonomy” discussions rarely look at India’s approach to the same dilemma as a model, and whether India can expect more rock-the-boat moments from Macron.

Could you tell me a little bit about what you’re doing at Brookings and what you’re focused on broadly, in terms of work at the moment?

I moved to [Washington] DC four months ago in January 2023, to be a fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe. This is a position that is generally held by the French, and we’re supposed to follow French policy and the transatlantic relationship. I was working at the European Council on Foreign Relations for the past almost eight years in Paris so what I bring is the European vision, both on French European policy and on how the European debate plays into the transatlantic relationship. And because of my training – I was trained in Indian and Chinese foreign policies – I also look at the Indo-Pacific dimension, what the US is doing and of course what Europe wants to do. I find myself at the intersection of Europe, the US and Asia right now, which is an interesting place to start when you’ve just arrived in DC and the whole foreign policy conversation is driven by US-China tensions.

What is really interesting is that the Asia hands here don’t know Europe so well. The Europe hands know the transatlantic relationship and its tensions, but they don’t always knows Asia – China and India – well.

We are at this moment when all these different files, that used to be separate, they find themselves really connected. The European system is not so good at connecting all these files, so it’s interesting to see how the new geopolitical leadership coming from the European Commission is attempting to do this in a way that serves European interests. This is also why we’re looking at Europe’s new role in geopolitics, which was not the original set up for the EU. It’s really interesting to see all this history in the making. And to look at this from the US is interesting because it’s different from the conversations we’re having in Paris, Brussels, Sofia and Warsaw.

Tara Varma, visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Credit: India Inside Out.

You’ve written about the ‘Macron Method’, he’s been described as the ‘think-tanker-in-chief’ and we saw that on display in his recent visit to Beijing. Now that it’s been a few weeks, how do you read that visit? Does it look a bit less controversial in retrospect?

When Macron came to power six years ago, he vowed to visit China every year. His first visit was in 2018 and then, in 2019, Xi Jinping came to Paris, where he was greeted by Macron, of course, but also German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Macron went to China again in the fall of 2019. And of course [Covid] happened. So this was the first time in three years that he visited China. There was a lot at stake.

A lot had changed. The France-China relationship has become very complicated. The current Chinese ambassador to France was earlier the ambassador to Canada, where he helped strain the relationship there and so when he was sent to Paris there was a sense that it was a message. In the summer of 2020, during the first lockdown, the Chinese embassy began publishing a number of unsigned ‘anonymous communications’ – basically fake news – that said the French government was encouraging people to let elderly people die in pension homes.

In the backdrop of that, there was [German] Chancellor [Olaf] Sholz’s visit to China at the end of 2022. Controversial, because it was just a few days after the end of the 20th Party Congress, which confirmed that Xi Jinping would be president for life. And of course, Russia’s war in Ukraine has been going on for 15 months. There is a sense that Europe and the US have very little influence on Putin, so you need to find the pressure points that can move the needle with him. If not put an end to the war, at least get to a point where a ceasefire was envisageable.

It was quite clear to Macron that Xi Jinping was the one person who could get Putin to do that, but he has also been the one person not prepared to position himself in that way. He’s talked to Putin six or seven times now, he met with him in person, and they seemed very friendly just a few days before Macron and [European Commission President] Ursula von der Leyen went to China. This also sent a strong message to Europeans and Americans. It is not clear to what extent China is helping Russia militarily, but it is clear that it is not helping Ukraine, when Zelenskyy has been asking for Beijing to – if not be the peace broker – to at least be the middleman to get Russia to the table. Xi Jinping has not been willing to do this.

Of course, there were the Macron comments on the plane. But then there were the Chinese ambassador’s comments that Post-Soviet states did not really have sovereignty on French TV, and then Xi Jinping called Zelenskyy. I don’t know to what extent this is a formal sequence but the French are saying it helped that Macron insisted with Xi Jinping that he call Zelenskyy.

On Macron’s comments themselves – whether it is the Politico one, with excerpts, or the Les Echos one – both were proofread by Macron’s team. It’s one thing to say that when the president speaks he wants to be subtle and nuanced, he wants people to go really deep into what he means. But the fact of the matter was that the interviews were proofread. So there was a sense that Macron really did want to play the Macron Method, which consists of rocking the boat, putting a concept or an idea out there that he knows will spark a lot of anger, frustration, reactions, but ultimately the whole conversation revolves around his declaration.

I was struck by this at the time of the Nato brain-dead comment. Now he’s perfected the method. I don’t know too many European leaders whose declarations will be analysed in Europe, in the US, in Asia, in Latin America, in Africa… Macron’s name resonated as Biden’s name or Xi Jinping’s name or Modi’s name would resonate.

Most of the comments were very negative about what he said, on whether it was in Europe’s interest to let the situation in Taiwan escalate and also the fact that he seemed to equate American declarations and actions and Chinese actions in the regions and that these two would be put on the same level in terms of how much they contribute to escalation. This was the main problem, because I don’t think you can equate the two. I don’t think the US wants to invade Taiwan, whereas it’s quite clear from Xi Jinping’s comments that this is somewhere on his calendar.

But, the fact of the matter is, we’re still speaking about what Macron said. That is precisely what he wants. The fact that he is the one shaping the discussion and that he is the reference point, for him it’s a victory in itself. This should not be underestimated. People keep asking me – is he going to do this again? I can’t read a crystal ball, but my presumption would be that he will probably do this again.

You say Macron has ‘perfected’ the Macron Method here. Outside of the image point – that he remains in focus – in terms of the substantive underlying discussions in Paris, Berlin, Brussels, do you see these comments as actually pushing things forward in the foreign policy conversation? Does it precede a substantive shift in the conversation, or is it just foam that dissipates?

He wants it to have a long-lasting effect. The NATO brain dead comment was misinterpreted. He was talking about Turkey’s invasion of Northern Syria and the fact that there was no discussion about how one NATO ally did something that was not okay. But it was interpreted everywhere as being about the US, when it was only a little bit about the US and more about how NATO needs to have political discussions.

This time it’s a little different. It’s more about the transatlantic relationship with the US. There’s an element in it of the Europeans needing to be serious about defining their own interests and strategy, and talking power-to-power with the US, which is really Macron’s conviction. I think he was really shaken by the AUKUS scandal and he thinks that the Europeans need to have a conversation about security and strategy that goes beyond the transatlantic relationship.

We’re at a point where the current US administration is the most favourable to the Europeans as can be. We don’t know what the future will bring, but it will probably not be such a pro-European person to the fore, and it might bring someone who is really quite adverse to European interests. So Macron wants Europeans to prepare for that.

I think what he doesn’t realise as a French president – the head of a nuclear weapons state with a strong military and diplomatic system – that when he does things in such a way it makes the Europeans who solely depend on the American security guarantee even more aware of their vulnerability and it doesn’t really bring about a proposition beyond the discussion part. He doesn’t realise, being the French president, what it means for the others – that for some of these countries, he’s putting them in danger. Because the US security guarantee is existential to their security. Which is something I think most French presidents don’t realise.

He wants to be the one to push European sovereignty even more to the forefront. When I look at how the conversation on European sovereignty has moved, and how the European Commission today is doing a lot more than we thought it could – how it is basically circumventing the limits of its competencies and becoming an actor that is important in the US and China – that helps.

He truly wants to contribute to the debate, and to shape it in a nuanced way and to go beyond presumptuous declarations. He seems to not realise that when he speaks he’s not just another scholar adding to the debate, he’s listened to – as he should be – as President, as one of the UN Security Council’s permanent members, as the only nuclear weapons state leader in the EU. So his words are scrutinised even more than before. What he doesn’t seem to see is the effect that his words have, not just on the US, but also on his European partners, who do want to advance European security and strategy more. But its harder for them to see things from outside the US security guarantee and the French struggle to see the extent to which it will continue to define these countries’ strategies.

To look at this from the view of Delhi, one of the questions that comes up is, to what extent is there a trend within the French or European security space that reflects Macron’s comments? Is there enough of a current for closer relations with China in Europe, that should be concerning for an India that sees China as its major challenge?

That’s a big question. Seeing how France and India have become a lot closer in the last few years, with India being considered France’s closest partner in the region, there were a lot of questions there.

As you may know, foreign policy is not really a public debate in France. It’s really an elite discussion between policymakers and think-tankers, and there is very little discussion of China policy in France, compared with, say, Germany. In France, foreign policy is decided by a handful of people, though we do have excellent experts on this, particularly looking at the China-European relationship and what role France can play in that.

Macron is hedging. He wants to be one of the leaders who contribute to a peace deal or settlement or a negotiation. He’s ready to wield any element that he can in attempting to do that. My sense is that clearly he didn’t anticipate that partners such as India would have questions. We discussed it later on, telling [his team], ‘yes, they do have questions, they do want to know the extent to which they can trust France’ – which they were not expecting.

It’s funny, the French government thought this is something to do with how we can solve the war in Ukraine because Xi Jinping is one of the only persons who can wield any sort of influence on Putin, so we need to put all the energy that we can into solving this. But they didn’t anticipate it would pose problems with India, and with others.

I don’t see Macron giving up on this so easily. A lot of European governments and leaders are fearful of war fatigue settling into their populations. For the moment, populations have been extremely supportive of the efforts to help Ukraine, financially, militarily, and in humanitarian terms. That is still partly true even for the US population. But it is possible in the weeks and months to come that that will change. And so a solution will need to be found faster than we were expecting.

What is interesting is how the conversation has shifted. In 2019, when Macron attempted the rapprochement with Putin, the idea was to wean Russia away from China, because it wouldn’t be in Europe’s interest for them to be close. In a way he’s attempting to do this from the other end.

But in 2023, as in 2019, though the context is very different, these countries have an interest in staying close to Europe and each other. Sometimes you can do two things at once, and this is precisely what China will try to do as far as is possible.

Still, I don’t think Europe will stop the efforts to try and get China to act more responsibly on the global stage. So India should expect more calls from France to [China] to do things, and in a way the fact that Xi Jinping finally called Zelenskyy does seem to vindicate their efforts.

Outside of the question of Russia and Ukraine, what is the view on the decoupling, the China+1 conversation, in Europe? Macron did go to Beijing with a big cohort of business leaders…

In the past four months, the talk of decoupling is going away. A lot of European and American officials are saying we don’t want to decouple. [US Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman said it on February 15th amidst the whole balloon debacle. Ursula von der Leyen said it in her speech to MERICS [Germany-based think tank Mercator Institute for China Studies]. And [US National Security Advisor] Jake Sullivan just said it at Brookings. So now it’s quite clear that objectively, practically decoupling can’t happen.

What everyone is talking about is ‘de-risking.’ Which means we select a number of critical fields – infrastructure, technologies – that we don’t want China to be the sole provider of. Not cutting them off systematically. Hopefully this also means thinking strategically about who you want to partner with. And this is a decade-long strategy.

The idea is also to cool things down. The discussion here [in the US] is very different, because we talk here about the potential for conventional war much more than Europeans do. De-risking means we’re not putting an end to economic interdependency. We’re trying to figure how we protect ourselves without being protectionist. For governments in Europe and the US, the questions is – how do you ensure the promise of prosperity you made to your populations is still delivered, all the while protecting critical infrastructure and building new partnerships?

Europeans who have been living in their peaceful island for a long time are finally grasping what this new world is all about, and how they want to be a part of it. They have begun thinking about how Europe can have the means to defend itself while still being part of an open world. And that’s quite a strategic shift in the way the EU thinks of itself and thinks of its mission. And we’re still undergoing the thinking part. But of course Europe needs to act, because there is a war.

There are many elements: What kind of debates are going to happen in terms of economic security but also military security? What is expected from the EU in terms of its engagement with the rest of the world? Who are going to be its favoured partners in Asia, and what does that say about its relationship with the US? This is all shifting right now.

There are some things that are set. Japan, South Korea, India, Australia are going to remain major partners with the EU. That was true before and it’s going to be even truer now. But how the EU is going to be invested in the Pacific islands, how is the EU’s Indo-Pacific strategy different from the US, is it complementary…

It’s a very different EU than five years ago. It’s a much more outward looking EU than before Brexit, Trump, the migrant crisis. The fact that it’s a global actor is now accepted by all.

Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua in Bali in November 2022. Credit: Reuters.

Where does India fit into that vision for France and the EU? It seemed like many in Europe didn’t understand India’s stance on the Ukraine war. Both at the state and broader security community level, is there a better understanding of India’s approach to strategic autonomy?

I’m not sure there’s still a big understanding. I’m going to publish a piece in French about Indian foreign policy, but I have other colleagues, particularly Frédéric Grare, who published a piece for ECFR last year about India-Russia relations, and what India wants to do with the Russia relationship right now.

Since Covid, I’ve been quite struck by how European-Indian relations have taken on a new dimensions. Everyone talks about how the two entities are very similar – diverse languages, geographies, histories, that still need to work as one. But these were two entities that struggled to take things to a strategic level. When you talked about EU-India relations until 2020 it was still very specific areas of cooperation, like water management, countering radicalisation.

Possibly because both sides still struggle to understand one another. I don’t think the EU understands India so well, and I clearly see in India a struggle to understand what the EU is all about. And member states are so eager to be present and to make the bilateral relationship work in Delhi, that there was little effort from the EU. The EU delegation in Delhi, for example, is much smaller than the EU delegation in Beijing.

Coming out from Covid, there was this meeting between Modi and von der Leyen. It was a totally different meeting. Just look at the agenda: It was about defending their role in the multilateral space, thinking about a different vision of the world. A whole new dimension that has been sustained in the last three years.

Free-trade agreement negotiations which were totally put on the backburner before are now seriously being discussed, though we may not know how they will actually pan out. But at least both sides agree if this were to happen, it would be a gamechanger for the relationship.

There is the EU-India dimension, but also India’s role has shifted on the international stage. It finds itself being courted by all the big powers in a way that has never happened before, and I don’t see any power, whether it is France, Germany, the EU or the US, being able to turn down India at the moment. Everyone is conscious of it, and the Indian government is definitely the first to be conscious of it, and has managed to walk a fine line for the past 15 months in not turning away from Russia but at the same time discussing with the Europeans and Americans.

I don’t know how long this fine line can last. I think it may become an increasing struggle for the Indian government in trying to explain how they are not making a choice. Though I think putting it in those terms is exactly why they don’t want to do it, and the way they’ve been pressured to do it has not been helpful.

But it’s been hard for a number of partners to understand. And we’ve had to explain that India will want to diversify its partnerships as much as possible, there are some partners who might be more important at some point, but they will be one among many. How [Indian External Affairs Minister S] Jaishankar calls it a new multi-alignment strategy is probably the most self-explanatory reason. So this is going to remain central for India.

From a typically French perspective, there was the idea that India has become such a close partner – the closest in Asia – that there would be an alignment of views. But France was also expecting that from the UAE, and that didn’t happen. There’s also been a reckoning for a number of partners in Europe and the US, to realise they are not the only ones to have a say.

I don’t buy Putin’s line that this is the West vs the Rest. I was at the Raisina Dialogue earlier this year, and we had many questions from our Indian partners about how existential was the war in Ukraine, why there was so much investment into Ukraine – I didn’t see Europeans and Americans isolated on this. But what I saw was that Europeans and Americans were one piece of a much larger puzzle. And I think what we’re struggling with is accepting that we don’t drive the foreign policy decisions for all of the globe.

I was struck by that. We’re one piece of a larger puzzle. And I think that’s true for our relationship with India, but also true for our place in the world and the rebalancing that’s happening. I don’t think it’s being de-Westernised. I think it’s being invested in by a lot more powers, and you really see multipolarity in action.

It has always struck me that the conversations about European strategic autonomy rarely take India’s own efforts at strategic autonomy as a touchpoint. They are very different, but those two approaches are almost never on the same page…

In Indian foreign policy decision-making and thinking, strategic autonomy is generally accepted. Even if people have different views, the objective is accepted. That’s very different for European strategic autonomy, in part because of how the term is used. It has been mentioned in documents for the past 10 years now, though it has been perceived as a French idea, since French strategic autonomy has been around since the mid-1990s as a concept.

The French concept is the capacity to be independent in an inter-dependent world. A lot of the interpretation of this concept is that we would be independent from the US, to act. That is a problem, because for a vast majority of EU states, their security guarantee lies with NATO and the US. And so if we’re ‘independent’, we don’t have the capacity to act.

Honestly, I don’t think it’s against the US. It’s about building one’s own capacity. And the Americans have been complaining about the Europeans not pulling their own weight. But at the same time, the whole framing of European security is in NATO, and so if the Americans become disengaged it does put the Europeans in a tight spot.

The idea of strategic autonomy is sometimes very contested, even though it’s in official documents as an objective. But it does bring about a lot of fear and anxiety in a number of our European partners. And so because it’s not fully accepted and endorsed by everyone, we’re not at the stage right now where India and Europe can cooperate more, because it’s not assumed in Europe the way it is assumed in India.

Are you expecting anything specific from Modi being the chief guest at the Bastille Day parade in France this year?

I’m not expecting anything special. Not everyone is invited to Bastille Day. [Former Prime Minister] Manmohan Singh was invited, so it’s not the first time that an Indian PM is invited. But it’s Macron’s way of doing ‘en meme temps’, doing things at the same time. This is a moment where he wants to showcase the France-India partnership to the rest of the world, and there is a special message.

France would want India to be more forceful and open in its approach to Ukraine. To be fair, Modi has spoken to Zelenskyy much more than Xi. So there is a sense of more discreet actions, but in a way that could bring about some kind of negotiations or settlement to put an end to the war.

But I think it’s about showcasing the strength of the French-Indian relationship, and there will likely be business deals as well, though I don’t have any specific information on that.

There were concerns in India that the focus on the Ukraine war has turned Europe and America away from the Indo-Pacific…

It’s certain that Europe has been very preoccupied and that a lot has been happening on the Sino-US tensions front. But I don’t think it has died down at all. There’s still very much a willingness to act on the Indo-Pacific, there’s interest in what developing multilateralism in the Indo-Pacific could mean, particularly when it comes to the climate transition.

There is the idea that when Europe moves in, it will be to use the Global Gateway, this huge potential fund of private and public money to bring about the climate and digital transition. I’m quite pleasantly surprised to hear a lot of Americans say they want to do more with Europeans in the region, particularly on the soft diplomacy side, not so much military actions, but long-term investments. Half of the $300 billion Global Gateway fund is supposed to go to the Indo-Pacific. So I think it’s less in the news, but still very present.

What should those interested in your writing on these subjects read?

This article was first published on India Inside Out.