Emmanuel Macron and a World Turned Upside Down

Emmanuel Macron and a World Turned Upside Down
Stephane de Sakutin/Pool Photo via AP
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It was the handshake seen around the world. White-knuckled and vise-like, the salutation-cum-confrontation in Brussels between U.S. President Donald Trump and newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron galvanized the world’s attention. The meeting has since been subjected to countless interpretations, ranging from a clash of civilizations and collision of generations, to a dynamic and dashing Old World strutting its stuff in front of a crinkly and corpulent New World.

The actors then offered their own interpretations of the exchange. In a newspaper interview, Macron confessed the handshake was not “innocent.” France had to show at this “moment of truth” that it will not “make little concessions, even symbolic ones.” Trump followed by refusing to make the one concession -- admittedly an odd word for the acceptance of a non-binding agreement negotiated by the previous White House and signed by more than 190 other nations -- for which the world had hoped. Reportedly “bewildered” by the handshake and “irritated” by Macron’s subsequent gloss, he boasted, in a counter-interpretation both fatuous and false, that he was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.

Macron’s riposte was sudden and sharp. In a video, the French president denounced Trump’s decision as wrong-headed and vowed, in effect, that France would now lead the resistance against global warming and, by extension, the American president’s collaboration with these toxic trends. Effortlessly segueing from French to English, Macron then invited American researchers and renewable energy entrepreneurs to relocate to France, where they would find a government keener on their work than their own government.

All of the sudden, it seemed a monde à l’envers: a world turned upside down.

Unknown four years ago and installed as president four weeks ago, Macron has unleashed France onto the world stage. This is a dizzying turnaround for a nation thought too afflicted by terminal decline, encumbered by an obsolete political system, and burdened by the reputation, in Donald Rumsfeld’s famous phrase, as “old Europe.”

But is Macron’s sudden prominence fueled only by global frustration with Trump? While some might dismiss the 39-year-old president’s sudden notoriety to a trump de l’oeil effect, history instead suggests it is equal to the trempe de Gaulle, or the mark of the Fifth Republic’s founder.

In the republic the General built, the prime minister governs and the president presides. Under this division of responsibilities, in which the government proposes and the president disposes, the most régalien, or sovereign, of realms is foreign policy. This is because the measure of a nation’s grandeur is reflected by the role it plays on the world stage. Domestic politics was, for Charles de Gaulle, the continuation of foreign policy by other means.

No one grasps this Gaullist fact better than Macron. As one of his closest advisers told Le Monde, the new president “completely understands that more than half of his time will be given to foreign affairs.” While the specifics of the new president’s foreign policy remain largely undefined, he had announced the contours during his campaign. They will be shaped, Macron affirmed, by a “gaullo-mitterrandienne” vision.

The phrase reflects Macron’s “en même temps,” or “on the other hand” tendency. His goal is to tack between the Gaullist ambition for France to assume a leading role in a “Europe of nations” and Mitterrand’s aim of nestling France in a fully integrated Europe. This dialectical approach was emphasized, both theatrically and rhetorically, in the days following Macron’s victory. In his first official address on the evening of his victory, he declared: “My commitment is to defend France, its vital interests, its image and its message. I will also defend Europe, the common destiny that continent’s peoples have given themselves. At stake is our civilization and our way of life, our freedom and our values, our common enterprises and our hopes.”

If there were any doubts as to what Macron meant by “our,” he quickly dissipated them. For his inauguration, the soundtrack for his dramatic and solitary march across the Louvre’s courtyard -- reminiscent of the atmospherics surrounding Mitterrand’s 1981 inauguration at the Pantheon -- was not the “Marseillaise”, but instead the European Union’s official hymn, the “Ode to Joy” from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. No less telling was the choice of Berlin for his first foreign visit. At his joint press conference with Merkel, Macron observed: “We are at a historic moment for Europe … one that must be a time of new foundations.” The German chancellor, who has now seen four French presidents come and go, responded by noting that “Germany does well only when Europe does well, and Europe does well only with a strong France within Europe.”

At first, this might have struck cynics as boilerplate, not a blueprint -- as verbiage, not a vision. But Trump’s tragicomic trip to Brussels focused the minds of Merkel as well as Macron. When Merkel announced that it was “time for Europeans to take our fate in our own hands,” she was aligning herself with Macron’s gaullo-mitterrandienne aspirations. In this worldview, Macron declared during his campaign, “France and Europe are poised at equidistance between the United States and Russia.”  

With Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to Versailles, Macron showed the same moxie as in his meetings with Trump. While their handshake was cordial, Macron’s remarks at the joint press conference were blunt. As a marble-faced Putin listened, Macron lambasted Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the French election, blasting state-controlled sites like Russia Today and Sputnik for planting false news stories in the French media. But crucially, he also described himself as someone who, having said what needs to be said, moves on. He looked forward, he concluded, to undertaking “common actions” with Russia -- a sentiment he did not express to Trump at the end of the G-7 summit meeting.

Two related and critical aspects to Macron’s gaullo-mitterrandienne orientation that have received little attention are his approach to the Middle East and choice of Jean-Yves Le Drian as minister of foreign affairs. While he supported the French intervention in Mali under Francois Hollande, Macron has expressed serious misgivings over the military intervention in Libya under Nicolas Sarkozy. In an interview with the French news site Mediapart, he declared that over the past decade, France’s response to global crises has “succumbed to a neoconservative tendency with sometimes unfortunate consequences.” Armed intervention, he insisted, “makes sense only when it follows a diplomatic map.” As defense minister under Hollande, Le Drian oversaw Operation Serval, which stands as one of that government’s few major successes. According to his biographer Hubert Coudurier, Le Drian is a known, trusted, and respected quantity with American defense officials, which will help guarantee that, despite the current tension, relations will not suffer.

What is in store for France’s relationship with the United States in the après-handshake era? Conservative outlets in France worried that Macron had overplayed his hand. Le Point fretted if it was “the handshake that imperiled the world,” while L’Express warned that Macron “should not have boasted” about his reasons for the gesture. Yet these voices have been drowned out by En Marche’s landslide victory in this week’s legislative elections. The showdown in Brussels seems only to have burnished Macron’s standing, and thus his party, among French voters, with one commentator going so far as to claim that, with the handshake, Macron “invented gaullo-mitterrandisme.”

De Gaulle famously described the direct election of the president, which he introduced via referendum in 1962, as “the encounter between a man and the people.” With the people speaking as loudly in the legislative elections as they did in the presidential election, it is safe to say that Macron has the credibility needed for the regalien realm of foreign policy. It remains to be seen how well he can carry the rest of Europe in his effort to keep to the strait and narrow of his gaullo-mitterrandienne path.

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