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Emmanuel Macron Wants to Set Space on Fire

The 1960s space race prompted international treaties insisting that space travel should only be used for peaceful purposes. Today, Emmanuel Macron’s plans to put military hardware in space point to a dangerous new arms race.

French president Emmanuel Macron attends the 75th anniversary of D-Day commemorations on June 5, 2019 in Portsmouth, England. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images)

Over two centuries since the storming of the prison, Bastille Day no longer has much to do with breaking the power of the mighty. Back in his day, the imperial president Charles de Gaulle loved using July 14 to stage vast displays of France’s military might. The tradition was continued by Nicolas Sarkozy, whose 2010 iteration of the parade included detachments from the former colonies — a display of France’s continuing global power status.

After attending last year’s Bastille Day side-by-side with Emmanuel Macron, Donald Trump was so impressed that he suggested Washington should do the same. And on Sunday it was the turn of German chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch premier Mark Rutte to be wowed by French military hardware, this time featuring a rather curious fellow flying around the Élysée Palace on a hoverboard. If some doubted its military efficacy, Macron told Instagram he was “proud of our modern, innovative army.”

The liberal hero’s boast of leading an all-powerful “Jupiterian” presidency is a reference to the Roman king of the gods rather than the fifth planet from the Sun. But in an address marking this year’s Bastille Day, Macron also made clear that he wants France to be more than just a global power. Following after Trump’s own call for a sixth branch of the armed forces, the French president announced the creation of a military space command, integrated into the air force, to ensure France’s defense “of space and by way of space.”

Amid his talk of mounting Russian cyber warfare and the need for proactive measures to protect French satellites, Macron was making quite the innovation. After the Sputnik launch in 1957, the United Nations created a Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, including both Cold War superpowers, to insist that space was neither national property nor a terrain of military engagements. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty banned the siting of weapons of mass destruction in space.

This is the very principle that Macron is challenging with his call for a new “military space doctrine.” Announcing his own “space force” last year, Trump insisted that he could not let China or Russia take a lead in outer space — America had to tool up. France’s liberal president is today heading down the same course, using the specter of Russia to advocate a European army and militarization of space that were unheard of even during the Cold War.

New Doctrine

Asked by the RFI radio station what role the new military command could realistically play, security expert Xavier Pasco played down the risk of outright warfare. Since “we are not in a Star Wars film” there would be “no need for military personnel to be in space.” However, in stressing that France’s main focus would be on defending its satellites from hostile maneuvers, including through jamming technology, he also raised the alarming prospect of physical confrontations — scattering debris that could endanger both other satellites and manned space infrastructure like the International Space Station.

Space weapons are not new. In 1985 an American missile launched from Earth successfully destroyed a satellite in a test mission for Ronald Reagan’s own “Star Wars” program, which was designed to give the United States nuclear supremacy by giving it the capacity to shoot down Soviet ICBMs. Slowing toward the end of the Cold War, only over the last decade have such tests intensified. This March, India became the fourth country (after the United States, China, and Russia) to test a space weapon, as far-right prime minister Narendra Modi announced a low-orbit satellite had been blown out of the sky.

Emmanuel Macron’s creation of a new military command shows that he wants France, too, to join the new arms race. Bastien Lachaud, an MP for France Insoumise and a member of the National Assembly’s Defense and Armed Forces Commission, panned Macron’s proposals and in particular the principle of treating space objects as a matter for national defense. For Lachaud, the president was “obeying Trump’s desire to militarize space,” “establishing an army in space . . . rather than promoting disarmament and respect for space as res nullius (no-one’s property).”

A sharp critic of France’s foreign policy subordination to the United States, Lachaud was also critical of the lack of parliamentary consultation behind Macron’s initiative, which the French president instead presented as a personal project inspired by defense minister Florence Parly’s “new military space doctrine.” Its exact terms remain a mystery, though recent strategic reviews have pushed for more spending in this field. While €3.6 billion had already been earmarked for space defenses in 2019–25, Macron promises he will soon reveal funding for an “active defense” policy in space.

Lachaud was doubtless right to suggest the risk of an escalation of weaponry in space, which risks becoming a terrain of competition akin to the naval rivalry among the colonial powers in the years before World War I. Last year, the White House announced its plans for a “war fighting” space force, in February specifying this would be “a bold, strategic step toward guaranteeing American space dominance.” The Pentagon has set out plans for an operational “combatant” force with the goal of “improv[ing] and evolv[ing] space war fighting.” And it’s not just Trump who’s planning for confrontation.

From Europe to the Stars

In 2017, in the wake of Emmanuel Macron’s election as president, the National Security and Defense Strategic Review emphasized the need for greater defense measures in space as both state and private actors intensified their presence. This government document, for which Macron himself wrote the preface, insisted that France’s ability to defend its “national space assets” would depend on its “intelligence on the situation in space and the ability to act whenever this security is threatened.”

The document particularly noted the intensified competition from countries like China, developing a military presence in space under the cover of civilian technology, and called for France to develop its partnership with those of its allies “able to make evaluations and act in the exo-atmospheric space” in order to proactively defend “the security of military-space assets.” Such comments on space defense were closely integrated into a general perspective for intensified operational cooperation with other EU countries.

A declining power, France nonetheless has certain remaining bases to project itself internationally. Guyane française, a former colony and French département to the north of Brazil, is home to the European Space Agency and the main spaceport for both France and other EU countries. Today, the vision of common European military forces is key to Macron’s hopes of projecting France’s power internationally as well as beyond our planet. At this year’s Bastille Day events, featuring a display of the European Intervention Initiative forces, he also launched fresh calls for a common European army.

For the partisans of “global France” the European project has long promised an answer to the end of empire. Since the early 1950s plans for a European Defense Community (EDC), the idea of a continental defense force was galvanized by the call for defenses against the USSR as well as the need to integrate postwar West Germany into the European family. Back then, the EDC was felled by the Assemblée Nationale, as the Communist PCF voted together with Gaullist critics of the American-led plan to remilitarize West Germany.

European defense initiatives nevertheless continued into the present. The EU’s own Common Foreign and Security Policy has never lived up to the initial plans for EDC, and in particular its vision of a supranational command integrating Europe’s armed forces. The European defense project has instead taken place under the auspices of NATO, such that the expansion of the EU in the post-Cold War period has gone hand-in-hand with the integration of new Eastern European states into the North Atlantic Treaty.

Though the Soviet enemy that cohered the initial creation of NATO has disappeared, claims of the threat posed by Russia’s army, paramilitaries and, increasingly, cyber warfare have over the last two decades acted as a kind of ideological glue for the proponents of increased European military spending and NATO expansion. Last year such hostilities extended beyond the atmosphere as Defense Minister Parly, architect of the new space doctrine, accused Russia of trying to spy on a French military satellite, in an intensification of the space rivalry between the two countries.

Today, Macron’s announcement above all looks like an attempt to buttress his tough-guy image, in which Putin — militarist leader of another second-rate power — acts as the perfect foil. Yet such posturing could have more serious consequences. Space exploration was never simply a peaceful affair — after the 1960s space race the superpowers continued developing military technology for extraterrestrial use. But what is changing today is the overt rejection of the notion that outer space belongs to no one. As space becomes more crowded, Macron, just like Trump, is making clear that it is also worth fighting for.