In his address to a special joint session of the French parliament yesterday, President François Hollande took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 42.7 of the EU treaty. The article states that all EU member countries have “an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter” to any fellow member state that is the “victim of armed aggression.” The little-known clause was apparently written into the treaty at the behest of Greece, which wanted additional safety guarantees in case it went to war with fellow NATO-member Turkey. Experts claim it has not been invoked since the treaty went into force.
So why is France invoking Article 42.7 rather than reaching for NATO’s own Article 5? The WSJ has a partial explanation:
French officials have said they don’t want to invoke the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual-defense clause, arguing the current U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State is more nimble. There are also concerns that invoking the NATO treaty, which was only done once, after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in the U.S., could serve as a propaganda boost for Islamic State.
But there might be more to it than that. After all, Paris has wanted to build up a European defense identity as an alternative to NATO since Charles de Gaulle toyed with pulling France out of the alliance in the 1960s.
On one level, the move is purely symbolic. The French know their neighbors well. They don’t really expect EU member countries to contribute large numbers of troops to any joint military endeavor. Luxembourg’s contribution to the war will be minimal, and the French almost certainly don’t think that Germany will help that much either. And anyway, France is only considering limited military action. It isn’t looking to occupy Syria, and plans to drop just a few bombs here and there. It doesn’t really need massive EU commitments to reach that goal.
But there are some tangible wins to this move as well. For one, the French get to watch the Germans squirm a little—a beloved sport in Paris. But more consequentially, it allowed Hollande’s ministers to declare that France would blow past the 3 percent budget cap the EU has imposed on it. This is very shrewd—it will be very hard for the EU to disentangle domestic from military spending, allowing the French to pump up their domestic economy a fair bit in a time of crisis.
Finally, by putting some distance between itself and America, the move could build up France’s credibility a bit among the disillusioned Sunnis, while also holding the door open to deeper cooperation with Russia in Syria, should the opportunity present itself.
All in all, a very canny bit of maneuvering. Chapeau, M. Hollande.