France – Global Macron

The phrase ‘global Macron’ describes a politician who has fully integrated the global dimension of politics into the construction of his domestic political leadership. A global presence is one of the classic roles of French Presidents, the role model being defined almost seven decades ago by General de Gaulle. The image of the French President as a supra-partisan Republican monarch depends in part on fulfilling the noble functions of the State: representing the unity of the nation abroad and symbolizing national unity during times of war and peace. French Presidents have traditionally claimed a ‘reserved domain’ in foreign policy and defense – and very clearly Macron in no exception. Key foreign and defence policy decisions and initiatives taken are taken at the Elysée, either by Macron or in regular meetings with the chiefs of Staff. Macron assumes the normal function of a French President (the prominent role in European affairs and in defense and security policy, as well as the personalization of relations with foreign leaders such as Donald Trump). The phrase Global Macron also refers to a very personalized foreign policy leadership, involving a downscaling of the Foreign Affairs Minister, Le Drian, who had occupied a much more prominent role as Defense minister under Hollande’s presidency.

From the outset, Macron measured himself up to the great and the good in world politics. Within two months of his election, he had welcomed Russian leader Vladimir Putin with great pomp and ceremony to the Versailles Palace and US President Trump to the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. During his first year, Macron led formal state visits to China, Algeria, India and the US, inter alia, with the state visits combining diplomacy with trade and cultural promotion. Substantively, also, under Macron, the French President was seen once again to be performing an active role in terms of foreign policy. Amongst the many examples, let us mention the attempts to reaffirm the centrality of an eventual French role as mediator in the Middle East and to mediate the Lebanon/Saudi Arabia crisis in late 2017.

But there are vital differences in relation to his predecessors. First, the generational effect has spilled over from domestic to foreign policy. From the very beginning of his mandate, Macron has been more than a traditional French foreign policy President; he is representative of a Macron brand, admired elsewhere, a model of youthful, reformist and intentional political leadership. Macron symbolizes generational renewal on the international scene as well, the French president being the most prominent of a group of leaders, including Justin Trudeau (amongst others). If political leadership is in part a form of communication, Macron is a past master, an adept of personal stage management, including a much more prominent use of Brigitte Macron and ‘private’ visits such as to the Taj Mahal in India in 2018 (de Royer, 2018). He displays a mastery of tools of modern political communication that surpasses his predecessors: the carefully controlled Twitter account and the You Tube channel, for example. There is an element of celebrity politics; the close collaboration with popular magazines such as Paris March or Vanity Fair is in stark contrast with the distant relationships maintained with more critical media outlets (the quality press, the 24 hour news programmes in particular).

Macron has also challenged elements of the traditional repertoire. French Presidents usually deliberately assume a position of national unity abroad; such was the case for President Hollande, for example, in Mali or Syria. The logic of national consensus usually encourages political leaders to rise above domestic conflict. Not so Macron, who has used distance from home to publicly reiterate the theme of the difficulty of reforming French society, to announce (to the rest of the world) his determination to continue to reform. Herein lies another aspect of the Janus-faced nature of the Macron presidency. It involves a permanent two-way dialogue; playing up domestic reforms in order to strengthen national prestige abroad; using the foreign arena to reinforce the reform message at home, in a permanent movement and transition between levels. Foreign leaders and audiences are invited to be fellow-conspirators in the plot to reform and change French society. Global Macron represents a permanent interaction between personality, position and environment.

There are limits to this enterprise. In practical terms, the frequent absences from France (46 days abroad during the first six months of 2018) produced growing criticism at home. For a system that relies so heavily on personal direction, Macron’s physical absence creates a vacuum (witness the spat between the Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and his associate Gérard Darmintin in relation to welfare spending, or premier Edouard Philippe’s inability to formulate clear policy responses in the physical absence of the President). In terms of substance, too, the ‘en même temps’ doctrine is less easy to export to the global – or even European – stage. The French President seeks to articulate a somewhat contradictory international message, one that is less easy to justify in terms of the domestic register of en même temps. It is caught between the need to promote France as a mover of international free trade and liberalization – the ‘France is Back’ of the 2018 Davos summit – and the domestic agenda of a France that protects against globalization. What passes for creative compromise at home represents a blurring of the message internationally. The positive framing of such a position is that France ‘speaks with everyone’, and is respected as an interlocutor. Under Macron, France has indeed attempted to be more present in the Middle East, in Africa and in Asia. But the balanced stance probably overplays French capacity: visits to Iran and Russia by Foreign Affairs Minister Le Drian, for example, made no difference to the activities of Iran and Russia in Syria. And Macron had little influence over the Turkish leader Recip Erdogen, or the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahou. The en même temps doctrine also appeared to be inconsistently applied faced with authoritarian political leaders, depending on French interests. There was a clear inequality of treatment between Egypt’s General Sissi – a harsh authoritarian leader who had purchased French Rafale planes – and the Turkish leader Erdogen.

And then there is the specific case of US President Trump, where Macron arguably overplayed his hand and discovered the perils of investing too much faith in a ‘special’ personal relationship. All started so well. President Trump’s state visit to France in July 2017 was heavy in state symbolism, the US President declaring himself to be impressed by the July 14th display of military hardware on the Champs-Elysées. French participation in the US-led air strikes in Syria, alongside the UK, confirmed France’s status as a key US ally. The pomp and glory of Macron’s visit to the US in in May 2018 contrasted with the frosty reception received by Chancellor Merkel later on in the same week. And yet this was all to little effect, as Trump successively withdrew the US from Paris climate agreement, and then from the Iran nuclear agreement, before finally imposing trade tariffs on Steel and Aluminium and sparking fears of a global trade war. Macron’s en meme temps was not designed to confront such realist power plays.

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