France’s ongoing role at the Latin American table

Arthur Mac Dowell | Latin America Fellow

Many recent analyses have given considerable insight into France’s attempts to remain a relevant strategic player in regions such as Asia-Pacific, Africa and of course in Europe. However, a region that is often overlooked when analysing French grand strategy is Latin America.


France has long held geopolitical ambitions in the Americas and often played a decisive role in its history. Although its current position is nowhere near what it was at the peak of its power, France continues to be an important player in the balance of power of the region.


It might come as surprise to many that France is the only European nation to successfully preserve a portion of its former colonial empire in the Americas, French Guiana, the largest Overseas Administrative Territory of the French Republic. Located on the north-eastern coast of South America bordering Brazil and Suriname, French Guiana is a highly strategic territory of approximately 83.534 km² (roughly the size of Austria). It houses both the biggest contingent of French souveraineté forces and the Guiana Space Centre, an extremely important site for both France’s and the European Union’s space programs due to the site’s geographical characteristics favourable to safe and economical space launches attributable to the sparsely populated nature of this coastal region and its proximity to the equatorial line where atmospheric conditions facilitate reaching geostationary orbit.


This prized possession is also a reliable source for mineral resources and serves as a gateway to the biological riches of the Amazon rainforest which can supply rare substances for innovative research in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry. Furthermore, it serves as a reliable safe-port for vessels sailing towards the South Atlantic and the Indian or Pacific Oceans.


All of South America’s biggest economies have France among their main trading partners. The cultural strength of France is also a factor that should not be overlooked as it had a great influence on the revolutionary processes of the region and in the development of constitutional frameworks. French military missions also had a profound influence on the construction of the military culture of nations such as Brazil and Chile, similar to how it influenced the early U.S. Army during its decisive role in the American Revolutionary War.


French military expertise continues to be indispensable for the defence capabilities of many South American nations and can at times make or break their ability to wage war. During the Falklands War, for example, France deprived the Argentinians from the training necessary to properly operate the Exocet anti-ship missiles and other weapons Paris had recently sold them, having also provided the UK with intelligence and logistical assistance assuring their victory and ultimately the decline of Galtieri’s regime and a subsequent collapse of Argentinian military prestige that is palpable until this very day.

France remains a key player in the modernisation of naval forces in the continent. In Brazil, France has its most ambitious naval engineering project in the region, jointly developing Brazil’s new submarine fleet of four conventionally propelled vessels and the first-ever South-American nuclear-propelled submarine.


Despite this and many other strategic cooperations between France and Brazil, a recent political dispute between the two served as a perfect example of how influential France can still be when it comes to manipulating the political climate of the continent. During the Amazon fire crisis in August 2019, Macron initiated a fervorous international campaign against Brazil’s policies of easing ecological regulations in favour of its agricultural and mineral sectors, at one point explicitly calling for economic sanctions to be imposed in response.


French interests in this matter go beyond the sentimental narrative of ecological concern over the Amazon. The real concern rests on the recently finalised Mercosur—EU trade agreement, a historic deal that has been negotiated for nearly two decades for which France has long shown displeasure due to its likely negative impact to French farmers. Should the deal fail it could mean a coup de grâce for one of the few standing multilateral institutions in South America’s scenario of regional retrenchment. Macron threatened to block the deal in response to the crisis and successfully mobilised other EU members to boycott the agreement over the Amazon.


Bolsonaro was easily baited to exercise a flawed diplomacy of victimism and outright name calling that forced its government to later change its posture and employ the Armed Forces to combat the fires in addition to requesting all its embassies to publish information about Brazil’s commitment to environmental preservation and the government’s response to the fires. Brasilia, however, failed to properly assess the international repercussions of Macron’s move and will likely have to cope with having the Mercosur-EU agreement rejected in the European Parliament.


This incident perfectly illustrates two things. First, how influential France can still be in constructing a narrative in the international and European stages to serve its own interest and, secondly, how South America remains a region of superb importance to France’s economy, geostrategic calculations and to its ability to project power in what it perceives as its remaining spheres of influence. France may have lost most of its former colonial possessions in the Americas, however, its legacy as an active player in the region far outlives that of its Iberian counterparts.


Arthur Mac-Dowell was the July-December 2019 Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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