French amphibious assault ship Diksmuide sails in a fjord near Harstad, Norway, during joint exercise Cold Response 2022. Photo: NATO Flickr
In a very timely move, France has just moved from its 2016 Arctic roadmap – detailing its main interests in the region – to its first stand-alone polar strategy for 2030, aimed at repairing the current fall in French circumpolar scientific research capacities. and recognize the full scope of regional challenges ahead. The strategy demonstrates, from its title, a balanced approach of the two poles.
Benefiting from a new impetus inspired by the French ambassador to the poles and maritime issues, the French Polar Strategy, entitled “Balancing the extremes” and presented on April 5, 2022, mainly reaffirms the country’s traditional scientific interest in polar regions by setting out ambitious research goals for 2030, while being unequivocally transparent about research efforts that have so far suffered from severe underfunding. In Antarctica, France is showing its ambition to be a leader in protecting the region’s governance and environment, and reaffirms its continued support for marine conservation efforts and the current ban on mining.
But the strategy also includes a strong arctic section with key elements related to environment and security. This updated Arctic policy marks a relative shift from France’s past rhetoric on a number of strategic aspects and allows the country to reassert itself as an Arctic player, better in tune with the realities of the region.
France being an observer in the Arctic Council, a major nuclear and maritime power, as well as a member of the EU and a NATO ally – two large entities that each include several Arctic member states – , a coherent French strategy towards the Arctic was long overdue and could constitute a diplomatic asset in the context of the ongoing strategic discussions within NATO. The community approach is also strongly highlighted in the document published under the French Presidency of the Council of the EU.
The Persistent Gap Between Climate Rhetoric and Mitigation Reality
Quite remarkably – but unsurprisingly – the predominant scale of climate impacts and environmental risks in the region can be read throughout the document, in close synergy with the recently updated EU Arctic policy. and released six months earlier, and with a strong focus on the maritime domain. In this sense, the strategy draws a clear line between protection and exploitation. It also recognizes that indigenous communities are at the forefront of the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss, and advocates for sustainable development projects supporting these communities towards necessary climate adaptation.
On the climate issue however, if France aspires to join the Arctic states in leading the way to climate resilience, it needs full credibility as a nation. This requires bridging the gap between rhetoric and reality when it comes to mitigation efforts. France can do much more to reduce its GHG emissions, and the latest IPCC report, published the day before the publication of the French Polar Strategy, is the ultimate toolbox that we must urgently use. In the Arctic in particular, further inducing TotalEnergies to withdraw completely from its Russian involvement in LNG 2 by reversing its balance of risks could be a constructive step both environmentally and morally. It is also a question of investing more in the French energy transition through low-carbon alternatives (while 62% of the French energy mix is still based on fossil fuels), accelerating energy efficiency and promoting sobriety.
Incorporating Global Strategic Change into Arctic Security Considerations
Equally important, the strategy explicitly acknowledges great power competition and the range of regional impacts of Russia’s war on Ukraine, forcefully breaking France’s once-inclusive language toward its “format” chat partner. Normandy”, as well as its past ambitions to maintain dialogue with Russia on environmental, strategic, scientific and economic issues in the Arctic. As a concrete illustration, the document mentions France’s interrupted plan to co-organize the 4th edition of the Arctic Science Ministerial with Russia in 2023. More generally, the recent global strategic shift resulting from the Russia’s unprovoked invasion is already affecting the entire spectrum of Arctic security and safety. governance and will lead to alarming science gaps due to lack of permafrost thaw data due to interrupted cooperation. This adds uncertainty to an already vulnerable region and will need to be addressed by allies and partners.
In this respect, the strategy stands out for its strong and realistic wording by characterizing Russia’s behavior as a threat to the region and by mentioning the Arctic as a terrain of “potential international confrontation” – a term which has not been mentioned only once in the 2016 Arctic roadmap, although it was later highlighted in the 2017 Strategic Defense and National Security Review.
While renewed tensions have been a reality in the Arctic for some time, the risk of open confrontation remains low. France, as an actor in the Arctic and a NATO ally, would benefit from pointing out and taking into account the real nature of the risks incurred in order to consider appropriate measures to deal with them. To name a few, escalation due to miscalculations, hybrid operations (the Arctic being one of Russia’s favorite playgrounds for testing and demonstrating its hybrid capabilities), as well as unmonitored Russian shipping and drilling projects leading to major environmental risks are at the heart of the conversation. . With this in mind, situational awareness, early warning capabilities and interoperability – key to the Cold Response exercise which took place in March and included a major component of the French Navy – will remain critical. In addition, Russia’s behavior led to the decision of Western Arctic countries to suspend regional cooperation, including freezing the Arctic Council, the region’s most effective governance forum finds itself under the Russian presidency until May 2023. In light of this response, and unless Arctic stakeholders innovate on more enduring temporary cooperation frameworks, track two diplomacy with allies and partners on soft and hard security issues might be the only way forward for now.
In this evolving strategic context, France’s ambition to lead foresight efforts in the region and to host informal multilateral discussions is also a welcome decision. Willingly or not, the fact that the document was published two months before the update of NATO’s strategic concept – also looking towards 2030 – sets the French tone in the Alliance’s debates and can easily be interpreted as a attempt to influence. Increased unity of allies and partners will also reduce vulnerability to hybrid threats – and on that note, the fact that France has finally distanced itself from its past “the Arctic belongs to no one” rhetoric and realigned itself with the real sovereign status of the region is quite reassuring.
Ultimately, if it does not rightly call itself a “State close to the Arctic”, France is at least strengthening its role as an Arctic actor. The abundant mention of security issues throughout the strategy, in a region where hard security issues are traditionally little addressed, also demonstrates a French awareness that if we are to look north, we cannot afford blind vision.
Pauline Baudu is a research assistant at the Wilson Center Polar Institute and the Environmental Change and Security Program, in Washington DC. She is also a research assistant at the Center for Climate and Security. A graduate of the French Institute of International and Strategic Affairs, she is also a civil servant and lawyer with the French administration.