Analysis: Does France have the military strength to send troops to Ukraine?

Emmanuel Macron has sparked headlines in France and around the globe by stating that he 'does not exclude' sending western ground troops into Ukraine to fight against the Russian invaders - so how does this fit in with France's military strength?

Analysis: Does France have the military strength to send troops to Ukraine?
The French military is among the most powerful in Europe. Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP

Speaking after hosting a meeting in Paris of two dozen European leaders to discuss Ukraine, Macron painted a grim picture of a Russia whose positions he said were “hardening” both at home and on the battlefield.

“We are convinced that the defeat of Russia is indispensable to security and stability in Europe,” he said.

Russia, he said, was showing a “more aggressive attitude not just in Ukraine but in general”.

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While there was “no consensus” on the sending of Western ground troops to Ukraine, “nothing should be excluded. We will do whatever it takes to ensure that Russia cannot win this war,” he said.

Countries including Germany, Britain, Spain and the US rushed to say they had no plans to send their soldiers to Ukraine.

Europe and the US 

A clear part of Macron’s thinking is worry about the reliability of continuing US support for Ukraine – but he has long called on Europe to take more responsibility for its own defence, talking about ‘European strategic autonomy’ long before Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking in August 2017, just months after being elected as French president, Macron laid out his vision for Europe, saying: “In terms of defence, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a joint defence budget and a joint doctrine for action. We need to encourage the swift creation of a European Defence Fund, permanent structured cooperation, and supplement them with a European intervention initiative that better integrates our armed forces at all stages.

In the fight against terrorism, Europe must bring our intelligence capabilities closer by creating a European intelligence academy. Security must be guaranteed, together, in all its aspects: Europe must have a joint civil protection force.”

Asked on Monday about the possibility of continuing to support Ukraine in the context of the US presidential elections this November, he said: “We cannot wait for the outcome of the American elections to decide what our future is going to be.

“It is the future of Europe that is at stake so therefore it is up to the Europeans to decide. If others want to join in and help, fantastic, but that is just an added bonus.”

French military strength

France’s military is generally considered one of the strongest in Europe, both in terms of size and readiness to act.

According to a ranking for the magazine Business Insider – based on military size, capability, technical skills and equipment – Russia has the most powerful military, followed by France and then the UK. France with a standing military of around 260,000 people, the UK has around 185,000. 

And within Europe it tends to be France and the UK – which are also the two European nuclear powers – who lead the way on military matters.

They two countries work closely together with a lot of day-to-day coordination between British and French troops – formalised in the Lancaster House agreement of 2010. Although political relations have sometimes been strained since Brexit, operational military cooperation has continued to be close. 

A 2021 report from the Rand Corporation, an American think-tank partly funded by the US government, found that the French military was among the “most capable” in Western Europe.

“France is the only European country capable of unilaterally engaging its forces overseas,” said Jean-Jacques Roches, director of the Institute of Weapons and Defence at the University of Panthéon-Assas.

France is also unusual in that it was increasing its military spending even before the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine and Macron has been increasing the defence budget since the beginning of his presidency, reversing decades of defence cuts.

France spent €43.9 billion on defence in 2023, around 2 percent of its GDP. 

Global force

France’s military also has a wide geographic reach, deployed on missions around the globe.

More than 30,000 French servicemen were deployed in 2021, mostly overseas.

According to the French Defence Ministry, France also has permanent military bases in Gabon, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, UAE – as well as in its own overseas territories of La Réunion, Mayotte, New Caledonia, French Polynesia and Guyana.

In recent years, it has been reported that the French military has been involved in secret operations in Egypt and Libya. French special forces are often deployed to exfiltrate officials or hostages from danger zones.

French history myths – the French army always surrenders

Member comments

  1. Where does the 185,000 UK troops number come from? The Army only has around 75,000 these days.

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France seizes €4.5m coastal villa linked to Vladimir Putin

The Kremlin on Thursday reacted furiously to the seizure in France of a luxurious seaside villa allegedly owned by Russian businessman Artur Ocheretny, the new partner of President Vladimir Putin's ex-wife.

France seizes €4.5m coastal villa linked to Vladimir Putin

The property, in the southwestern coastal town of Anglet, was seized in December 2023 as part of an investigation into money laundering, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Nicknamed Suzanna, the palatial, Art déco home was purchased for €5.4 million in 2013, with renovations totalling up to €3.5 million, according to French media.

The probe came to light following a complaint by Transparency International, an NGO that exposes and tracks assets it says are linked to “dirty money”.

Investigators are looking into whether the funds used to purchase the home were obtained fraudulently, although prosecutors have stressed no-one has been formally charged.

The Kremlin reacted furiously to the seizure: “Any encroachment on private property is illegal from the onset,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

“The French authorities are undermining the foundations of their legal system. We have said it many times,” he added.

Since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022, billions of dollars worth of Russian assets have been frozen or confiscated in Europe due to sanctions.

The Kremlin has reacted furiously to the seizures and European efforts to use them to arm Ukraine, calling such moves an “unprecedented violation” of international law.