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French President Emmanuel Macron is one of the few European leaders that Americans know of. Why is this so?

It’s partly because of contemporary France’s legacy status in American culture and politics. France has a great backstory, and it has class.

It is also because of Macron himself, his personality, originality, and efforts to drag his European colleagues to re-engage ambitiously with European and global issues. Macron of course is playing a weak hand. France is no longer a world power. Nor is today’s Europe for that matter. But he’s a serious person, cultured, fluent, and he reminds others that political leadership in liberal democracy doesn’t need to be a choice between dumbing down and playing it safe.  

Certainly, Macron can play the game of democratic panache. He has a gift for slogans and provocative language. Against U.S. President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Macron, in a UN speech about climate change, riposted, “Make the planet great again.” Well played. His assertion that NATO is “braindead” ran way beyond the usual news cycles. The European Union risks being “obliterated” as a world power.  Now he’s trying to organize UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s idea that, in the face of continuing wars, there is a need for a “global cease-fire.”  

Macron’s thinking, however, is deeper than slogans and provocations.

Two role models suffuse Macron's thinking: François Mitterrand, the Socialist president who held office from 1981 to 1995, and the great French World War II hero, Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s founding president, in office from 1958 to 1969.

The differences between Mitterrand and de Gaulle were many. But they were both intellectuals as well as leaders, at home in the world of ideas as well as the arena of power struggles. They, particularly de Gaulle, kept Paris prominent in international media.

De Gaulle wanted “detente, entente and cooperation” with Russia, beyond the Cold War with the Soviet Union. He wanted a confederal European structure built on its nation-states, not some unelected bureaucracy in Brussels. Mitterrand tried to have it both ways: a Europe of concentric circles, a close-knit federation within a broader confederation. The euro was an example: some countries in, others out.

The point is that, like his predecessors, Macron’s significance as France’s leader, and the importance of France itself, has to do with ideas as much or more than practical results, especially when other powers are greater. In any case, ideas are more important than often is recognized. This is hard for Americans to recognize.

It’s tempting to dismiss Macron as a typical French showboat—more substantive than his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy but equally ineffective. He’s dismissed as arrogant and tone-deaf. This is too easy.

Macron leads France in a different era, but in certain ways de Gaulle and Mitterrand are always in the background. Macron is trying, as they did, to give France back its history, to make French people interested again in what France once was, to consider that it might be an international influence again by marshalling enthusiasm at home and mutual consciousness with other European governments.  

What’s the alternative? Macron may be playing a weak hand but he’s doing what he can. He hasn’t resigned himself. He balanaces a pessimism of the intellect with optimism of the will. That’s not nothing.

It’s hard to make this case and easy to criticize it with a list of practical shortcomings and ringing Macronian statements falling on deaf ears.

Leadership is not a skill set, as we Americans say. It’s a state of mind and force of character. A true leader has to try, even against a crude dominant political culture in which Trump’s American populism and Xi Jinping’s reactionary Communist party conformism have center stage.

In a recent Financial Times interview Macron said, “I believe (the EU) is a political project. If it’s a political project, the human factor is the priority and there are notions of solidarity that come into play…the economy follows on from that, and let’s not forget that economics is a moral science.” Who among our own leaders could improvise such a line of thought, emphasizing that economics, as Adam Smith said long ago, is a moral science?

Macron as a leader gives France and Europe "face". He renews interest in them, in particular among Americans. France and Europe "exist" as countries that are worth keeping in mind, not just flyover territory. How many Americans know who are the beleaguered prime ministers of Spain or Italy, or the authoritarian-minded leaders of Hungary or Poland? How many would like to know?

For the geopolitically minded, Europe becomes a mere space on a map and Europeans come from no memorable place. Worse, it doesn’t much matter even to them. True political leaders can’t accept this.  

For years, Angela Merkel's bland visage and unyielding monetary policies personified Europe’s heart and soul, or lack of it. She was called the real leader of Europe, or even the Western world. It was demoralizing.

The arrival of Boris Johnson in power makes the U.K. newly interesting. It can happen. In the past few years, by comparison, who cared about Theresa May's or David Cameron's Britain? 

Thus, the use of Macron. He’s trying to make more of political life than national interest narrowly defined. He’s subtle, even brilliant. He’s interesting. Something innovative may still come of it. With luck, more young people may come to see politics as a vocation.

If all this sounds like trying to make a good case out of weak arguments, so be it. Arguing a hard case has its value, even though the wizened will say this is just the old romanticism about France and Europe.  

The views expressed are the author's own.