French amphibious assault ship Dixmude sails through a fjord near Harstad, Norway during the joint exercise Cold Response 2022. Photo: NATO Flickr
In a very timely move, France just went from its 2016 Arctic Roadmap – detailing its core interests in the region – to its first standalone polar strategy for 2030, aimed at fixing the current downfall in the French circumpolar scientific research capacities and acknowledging the full extent of the regional challenges ahead. The strategy demonstrates, from its very title, a balanced approach to both Poles.
Benefitting from a renewed 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, primarily reaffirms the country’s traditional scientific interest in the polar regions by setting out ambitious research goals towards 2030, all the while being unequivocally transparent about research efforts that have been suffering from severe underfunding so far. In Antarctica, France displays its ambition to lead in protecting the region’s governance and environment, and reasserts its continuing support for marine conservation efforts and the existing ban on mining.
But the strategy also includes a strong Arctic section featuring critical interrelated environmental and security components. This updated Arctic policy demonstrates a relative shift from France’s past rhetoric on a number of strategic aspects and allows the country to reassert itself as an Arctic actor, better in line with the realities of the region.
France being an Arctic Council observer, a nuclear and major maritime power, as well as an EU member and NATO ally – two major entities that each comprise several Arctic member states —, a coherent French strategy addressing the Arctic was long overdue and can constitute a diplomatic asset as part of the ongoing NATO strategic discussions. The community-based approach is also strongly highlighted in the document, which was released in the context of the EU Council’s French presidency.
The persisting gap between climate rhetoric and mitigation reality
Quite noticeably -but not surprisingly-, the prominent extent of the climate impacts and environmental risks in the region reads throughout the whole document, in close synergy with the recently-updated EU Arctic policy that was released six months earlier, and with an expected strong focus on the maritime domain. In that sense, the strategy draws a clear line between protection and exploitation. It also acknowledges Indigenous communities as being at the forefront of the impacts from climate change and biodiversity loss, and advocates for sustainable development projects supporting these communities towards necessary climate adaptation.
On the climate issue though, if France aspires to join Arctic states in leading the way towards climate resilience, it needs full credibility as a nation. This requires reducing the gap between rhetoric and reality as far as mitigation efforts are concerned. There is a lot more France can do to reduce its GHG emissions, and the latest IPCC report, published the day before the French Polar Strategy was released, is the ultimate actionable toolbox we urgently need to use. In the Arctic specifically, further incentivizing TotalEnergies to entirely pull out from its Russian LNG 2 engagement by reversing its balance of risk could be a constructive step forward on both environmental and moral levels. This also entails investing further in the French energy transition through low-carbon alternatives (when 62% of the French energy mix still relies on fossil fuels), accelerating energy efficiency and fostering sobriety.
Factoring the global strategic shift into Arctic security considerations
Equally importantly, the strategy explicitly acknowledges great power competition and the range of regional impacts from Russia’s war on Ukraine, forcefully breaking away from France’s once inclusive language towards its discussion partner of the “Normandy format”, as well as from its past ambitions to maintain dialogue with Russia on Arctic environmental, strategic, scientific and economic matters. As a concrete illustration, the document mentions France’s halted 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 Russia’s unprovoked invasion already affects the whole spectrum of Arctic security and governance and will lead to alarming scientific gaps from the lack of data on permafrost thaw due to paused cooperation. This brings further uncertainty to an already vulnerable region and will need to be addressed by allies and partners.
In this regard, the strategy stands out from its strong, realistic wording by calling Russia’s behavior a threat to the region and mentioning the Arctic as a ground for “potential international confrontation” – a term that was not mentioned a single time in the 2016 Arctic roadmap, although it had then been highlighted in the 2017 French Strategic Review of Defense and National Security.
While renewed tensions have been a reality in the Arctic for a while, the risk of open confrontation remains low. France, as an Arctic stakeholder and NATO ally, would benefit from flagging and factoring in the actual nature of the risks entailed in order to consider the adequate steps to address them. To name a few, escalation due to miscalculations, hybrid operations (the Arctic being one of Russia’s favorite playgrounds to test and demonstrate its hybrid capacities), as well as unmonitored Russian shipping and drilling projects leading to major environmental risks, are central to the conversation. With this in mind, situational awareness, early-warning capacities and interoperability – key to the Cold Response exercise that unfolded in March and included a major French Navy component – will remain critical. In addition, Russia’s behavior resulted in the decision from Western Arctic nations to pause regional cooperation, in particular by freezing the Arctic Council, the region’s most effective governance forum that happens to be under Russian Chairmanship until May 2023. In light of this response, and unless Arctic stakeholders innovate on more sustainable, temporary cooperation frameworks, track-two diplomacy with allies and partners on soft and hard security matters might be the only way forward for now.
In this evolving strategic context, the French ambition to lead foresight efforts in the region and to host informal multilateral discussions is also a welcome decision. Purposefully or not, the fact that the document was published two months ahead of the updated NATO Strategic Concept – also looking towards 2030 – sets the French tone in the Alliance debates and can easily be interpreted as an attempt to influence them. Increased allies and partners’ unity will also reduce vulnerability to hybrid threats – and on this note, the fact that France finally distanced itself from its past “the Arctic belongs to no one” rhetoric and realigned with the region’s actual sovereignty status is quite reassuring.
Ultimately, while rightly not calling itself a “near-Arctic state”, France at least strengthens its role as an Arctic actor. The extensive mention of security concerns throughout the strategy, in a region where hard-security issues are traditionally hardly addressed, also demonstrates a French awareness that if we want to be looking North, we can’t afford a one-eyed focus.
Pauline Baudu is a Research Assistant with the Wilson Center Polar Institute and Environmental Change and Security Program, in Washington DC. She is also a Research Assistant with the Center for Climate and Security. She is a graduate of the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs, and is also a public official serving as a legal expert with the French administration.