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30 November 2022

Emmanuel Macron: the man who would be king

How the French president became the most powerful leader in Europe and a hyperactive player on the world stage.

By Jeremy Cliffe

As the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once apocryphally asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” Over the subsequent decades, the best available answer has, of course, varied. But today it is surely: Emmanuel Macron. He has occupied the Élysée Palace for five years and has big, deeply thought-through ideas about the future of Europe. Newly re-elected and thus secure in office until 2027, he roams the continent and the globe seeking out thorny issues to solve. Macron lost his legislative majority in June, and so, like a domestically weakened Tony Blair long before him, he is now turning to the world stage with even more vigour.

In recent weeks Macron has launched the European Political Community (EPC), a forum for European political and strategic discussion; convened peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan; unveiled a plan to overhaul France’s armed forces by 2030; reset his country’s Africa policy; advocated a “single global order” transcending US-China tensions at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Bangkok; held talks on the war in Ukraine with China’s Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali; and secured a green light for Europe’s biggest-ever common defence project. On 29 November he arrived in Washington DC for the first state visit of Joe Biden’s presidency. His sheer hyperactivity is something to behold. The historian Timothy Garton Ash has, if somewhat tongue in cheek, compared him to “Jacques-Louis David’s heroic picture of Napoleon Crossing the Alps on a prancing white steed, one arm outstretched to point the way onward and upward”.

Yet for all of this, Macron can be inscrutable. His foreign policy has had some successes, but also a number of missteps and even debacles. The grand visions and the practical reality have not always matched up. Is he a liberal internationalist or a French sovereigntist? An idealist or a realist? A team player at the West’s top table or a lone-wolf unilateralist? In other words: what is the Macron Doctrine?

[See also: The French right can’t quit Russia]

Macron’s approach to foreign policy starts from the conviction that ours is a chaotic, dangerous and Hobbesian world in which history not only never really “ended” with the fall of the Soviet Union, but is accelerating. In his analysis, this is a product both of humanity’s sheer interconnectedness and of the shifting balance of global power (“a sort of competition between universalisms” as he has put it). In his annual speech to France’s ambassadors in September, Macron argued that Russia’s war in Ukraine is thus not “an event that should be isolated from the rest, but has happened as almost a logical consequence, a catalyst of many phenomena at work”. Tara Varma of the European Council on Foreign Relations explains: “He thinks in terms of many deteriorating situations everywhere in the world, affecting European and French citizens in a way they would not have done before. Macronism is his answer to the question: how do we ensure that we maintain the multilateral system but also solidify and renew it?”

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In practice, there are two pillars to that answer. The first is the notion, deeply rooted in the Fifth Republic’s foreign-policy norms, that France should be a puissance d’équilibre, or “balancing power”. This grows out of the country’s many instruments of influence: membership of the EU, UN Security Council and Nato, nukes, residual colonial territories on every continent, and the global reach of the French language. And it supposedly seeks to use these instruments to press its thumb on the scales wherever a destabilising imbalance is emerging, mediate in conflicts and maintain its freedom of manoeuvre at almost any cost. As Macron put it in his speech to the ambassadors: “We have never been aligned behind or the vassals of any global power. We have partners, we have allies… but we have always kept our independence.”

The second pillar of Macronism is “European sovereignty”, the idea that, in an age of great-power rivalry, Europe needs to strengthen its autonomous capacity to advance its own interests. The canonical text of this agenda was the speech he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris in 2017, in effect advocating a great leap forward towards a United States of Europe. “The route of rebuilding a sovereign, united and democratic Europe,” he argued, should include greater integration of tax, defence, digital, migration, education and research policies, new federal structures such as a eurozone finance minister and budget, pan-EU lists at European elections, and the kernel of a future European army in the form of an EU “rapid reaction force”.

An important distinction is that where the first pillar places Macron firmly within the “Gaullo-Mitterrandist” tradition in Paris (that of prioritising French independence, associated with Charles De Gaulle and François Mitterrand), the second, “Sorbonne” pillar goes beyond it. “He is more emphatically pro-European in his discourse than any French president before,” says Shahin Vallée, a former Macron adviser now at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Yet the president sees no contradiction between the two. “The essence of Macronism is reconciling the traditional French ‘balancing power’ stance with the Europeanisation of foreign policy,” says Varma. “He wants to create a new foreign policy tradition, a new dividing line between Macronistes and the rest.”

This ambition is deeply embedded in Macron’s character. Even by the standards of France’s quasi-monarchical presidency, he possesses an extraordinary self-belief; the conviction that his own “Jupiterian” energy, charisma and intellect, deployed in portentous speeches and at world summits, can overcome contradictions and break through seemingly unbreakable blockages.

Some trace aspects of this back to Macron’s student-era mentorship by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur, known as an exponent of “both-and” over “either-or” thinking. This Ricoeurian spirit of “en même temps” (at the same time), according to Macron’s biographer Sophie Pedder, explains the president’s “quest to reconcile apparently contradictory forces” and thus helps to “make sense of what sometimes appears to be an ambiguous approach to fundamental policy issues”. His philosophical training may also explain Macron’s embrace of the abstract that, at its best, lends him a heavyweight sophistication of thought but, at its worst, tips him into impractical, divisive sophistry.

[See also: Emmanuel Macron is running out of options]

Widely read though he was, Macron brought little experience of the world stage to the Élysée in 2017. Michel Duclos, France’s former ambassador to Syria, recalls meetings with him when he was François Hollande’s economy minister: “It was very clear he had little knowledge about international affairs, but he realised he had to learn.” Among those known to have influenced Macron’s foreign-policy education are Jean-Pierre Chevènement, previously Mitterrand’s defence minister, and Hubert Védrine, Mitterrand’s long-serving diplomatic adviser and subsequently foreign minister under Jacques Chirac.

The contours of Macronism were there from the start: he set off energetically both on what he himself had called the “Gaullo-Mitterandist” track and on the Europeanist track. The former path took the form of energetic attempts to woo both Vladimir Putin (hosting the Russian president at a summit at the Palace of Versailles in 2017) and Donald Trump (a bombastic state visit to Paris for the US president in 2018 marked the high point of this “bromance”); military strikes on the Syrian regime in retaliation for the Douma chemical attack; deepening France’s anti-jihadist Opération Barkhane in the Sahel and backing the warlord Khalifa Haftar in Libya’s civil war. The latter track found expression in Macron’s Sorbonne speech and in his bid to win over Angela Merkel to its agenda. For those of us in the room at the Berlin chancellery when the two held their first joint press conference, the sense of possibility was palpable. “A magic dwells in each beginning,” quipped the German chancellor, quoting the author Hermann Hesse. A year later the partnership produced the Franco-German Meseberg agreement, advancing the EU-wide taxation of digital giants among other, rather vaguer commitments on common economic, migration and defence policies.

The year 2019 was a turning point. It was clear that Macron’s overtures to both Trump and Merkel had failed: the US president had pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and withdrawn his troops from northern Syria, while the German chancellor had proved intransigent on much of the Sorbonne agenda. At home the president was battling the gilets jaunes protests. This colder climate, internationally and domestically, sharpened Macron’s most Gaullo-Mitterrandist traits. He hosted Putin at the Fort de Brégançon, his Mediterranean summer retreat, in an attempt to peel Russia away from China; told France’s ambassadors that “we are not an aligned power”; blocked EU accession bids by North Macedonia and Albania; and in an interview with the Economist alarmingly declared Nato’s “brain death”.

Macron’s inclination towards the role of France as “balancing power” was prominent in 2020, too. He emphatically backed Greece over Turkey in the rivalry between the two in the eastern Mediterranean; stood in the rubble of the Beirut blast and promised Lebanon a “roadmap” to a better future; and made France a formal partner of Asean, the south-east Asian economic bloc. Duclos argues that 2020 and 2021 marked a “moment of truth” for Macron’s foreign policies, when a now mature Macronism was put to the test by the Covid pandemic and, with France’s presidential election nearing, some interim conclusions about his foreign-policy record could be drawn.

On the whole, the successes of Macron’s first term were steps towards greater European sovereignty. The EU’s €750bn pandemic recovery fund, financed with previously unthinkable common debt, was a huge achievement. Under Macron and the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen (a Macronist appointment), the EU has started to think of itself in more geopolitical terms. New frameworks for defence and security cooperation are starting to build a common European strategic culture and the EU is setting up the rapid reaction force that he envisioned at the Sorbonne. Two big legislative packages passed this year lay the groundwork for a more dynamic, independent European digital economy. “Macron has done more to change the EU than any other EU leader in the past five years,” says Georgina Wright of the Institut Montaigne think tank in Paris.

But much of the Sorbonne agenda remains a distant prospect. Europe’s economy is imbalanced and insufficiently integrated. Relatedly, progress on pan-EU democracy has been halting and the bloc is deeply divided on many big foreign policy issues. Macron’s most conspicuous failures, however, are mostly outside of the EU. The eastern Mediterranean is no more stable for his interventions; Lebanon’s roadmap has come to little; Haftar’s militias were pushed back in Libya; France’s Indo-Pacific strategy was undermined in 2021 when Australia abandoned its submarines deal with France and forged a new Aukus pact with the US and UK. And the French troop surge in the Sahel has been a debacle. But Macron’s biggest failure was his attempt to contain Putin, including his last-ditch efforts to negotiate to prevent full-scale war in the early part of 2022.

These failures are rooted in the very nature of Macronism. Much as the French president protests otherwise, there are contradictions and trade-offs between the two pillars of his strategy. France backing Haftar in Libya as a “balancing power” wrecked the prospect of any common EU policy on this failed state in Europe’s near-abroad. Wooing Putin and dismissing Nato sowed deep suspicion in central and eastern member states. Proclaiming top-down visions of federalism draped in a French flag has not contributed to their popularity. “You cannot have both a unilateralist, balancing-power France and a Europe with a strong foreign-policy role unless you believe that Europe’s strategic autonomy is just an extension of France’s foreign policy,” says Vallée. “The idea that France will have to compromise on occasions is not acknowledged.”

Cover by André Carrilho

Macron’s failures are also tied to his method. The flipside of self-belief is arrogance and an inability to admit mistakes; that of hyperactivity is a lack of focus and follow-up; that of intellectualism is abstruse conceptualising. He has squandered capital on unhelpful throwaway comments (baselessly calling the AstraZeneca/Oxford Covid vaccine “quasi-ineffective” for over-65s caused offence in Britain, and warning against “humiliating” Putin horrified Kyiv’s closer allies). “He is a very pro-European leader, but often in quite intellectual, conceptual terms,” says Duclos. “The Europe he loves is the Europe of his imagination and not Europe as it is: the Germans as they are, the Poles as they are, the Baltics as they are… My fear is that he gets distracted by peripheral issues. He is spending so much time travelling around Asia. It is good he is active there, but what is the cost in focus on European problems?”

This year has been another turning point. Macron won re-election, the first French president to do so in two decades. But he also has been a player in a crisis – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – that has both undermined and reinforced him. Undermined because it made a mockery of his attempts to influence and contain Putin and transcend Nato, which has been revitalised by the war. France’s military exports to Ukraine have been paltry compared with British or Polish (let alone American) ones. “Macron missed a golden opportunity to lead Europe’s response to the invasion from 24 February,” Duclos says. And reinforced because the war has greatly strengthened Macron’s case for European sovereignty. In Paris as in other western European capitals, many are shocked at how much the continent continues to rely on the US for security – a US that may not always be willing to provide it.

On a typical day, Macron works from the Élysée’s storied Salon D’Angle (corner room). Formerly the bedroom of Eugénie, the wife of France’s last monarch, Napoleon III, it is on the first floor of the palace’s far-flung east wing, looking on to the garden through tall windows. Some call it “the room that makes you mad” for its remoteness. For ceremonial moments, however, Macron occupies the Salon Doré (golden room), with its mirrors and gargantuan chandelier. This is a nod to the legacy of De Gaulle, who first worked here. And it was here, early on 24 February, that Macron took the call from Volodymyr Zelensky telling him that war had begun: “We are fighting in the whole country.” He puts in long days at his desk, a flurry of calls and meetings starting early in the morning and ending, the president now in a hoodie and jeans, late at night. It takes a constitution of steel to survive in his inner circle, and several burned-out advisers have left.

Recently, life in the Élysée has been one of two halves. In the legislative elections, Macron’s party, Renaissance, lost its majority – and Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (RN), became the second-largest party in the Assemblée Nationale, with 89 of the 577 seats. Passing new laws is therefore a permanent battle, with the French government now frequently invoking Article 49.3 of the French constitution, which enables the executive to force through legislation. Macron is considering calling new legislative elections next year to secure a majority, but will likely wait until the worst of the cost-of-living crisis has passed. All that – including regular meetings with his trusted new prime minister, Élisabeth Borne – takes up much of his time. But Macron is also throwing himself into international affairs with all the more gusto.

[See also: Can Marine Le Pen wield power?]

Some of this may be him playing to the domestic gallery. The new strength of the RN means that Macron needs to be seen to be fighting for French interests. But a broader explanation is that he is contemplating his place in history: “I am obsessed with one thing,” the president told a group of reporters recently. “I believe that our duty towards our children is to leave them with the same freedom of choice as us.”

As his second term unfolds, Macron’s legacy-defining priorities on the world stage are becoming clear. In Europe he wants leaps forward on the Sorbonne agenda, including progress on defence integration, a more robust European energy infrastructure and another push for pan-European candidate lists at the 2024 European election. He wants the EU to be a leading player in postwar Ukraine. Recognising that it has not led on military support for Kyiv, and therefore cannot play the top role in any peace process, he is contemplating a huge new debt-backed fund to make the EU the leading player in Ukraine’s reconstruction. “Money is where the French see a big role for their foreign policy in Ukraine going forward,” says Mij Rahman of the Eurasia Group consultancy.

Farther afield, Macron wants to move from a military-led role in Africa to a more economic and cultural one focused on projects such as the Green Wall (a proposed 8,000km-long band of forestation preventing further desertification on the Sahara’s southern edge). He wants an independent European voice in the Indo-Pacific; after his meeting with Xi Jinping at the G20 he talked of a “strategic partnership” with Beijing. In the Middle East he wants to spur on the Baghdad Conference, a platform for regional peace talks, and involve France closely in the Israeli-Arab Abraham Accords.

One might question the wisdom of some of these (especially Macron’s fixation on the Indo-Pacific, where France and Europe will almost inevitably end up following the American lead), but by and large his second-term ambition is welcome. Crucial though it has been to Ukraine’s military resistance, the US is turning away from Europe. The Republicans are now an outright isolationist party and even the Democrats want to shift the country’s long-term attention to the Pacific. US officials warn that China may move to seize Taiwan in the next few years. If so, Washington will not have the capacity to continue devoting the degree of focus and investment on Europe and the continent’s tumultuous periphery that it does today.

If he is to make a success of his second-term agenda, Macron will need to apply the lessons from his first term. He will need to recognise the trade-offs between European sovereignty and his vision of France as a “balancing power”. And he will have to recognise the need for greater humility and diplomacy in his personal style and more coalition-building in his statecraft. Duclos is emphatic: “When you deal with Ukraine and Russia today you have to involve Poland. When you deal with Libya you have to involve Italy. If France wants to play alone, that will not work.” The big question about the president’s second term, Duclos argues, is: “Can he adapt?”

Recent weeks have brought some positive signs. When the idea of the European Political Community – a forum uniting the EU with the Caucasus, the western Balkans, Ukraine, Moldova, Turkey and the UK – was raised by France’s presidency of the EU Council earlier this year, many dismissed it as a classic French ruse to derail attempts to enlarge the union. “The EPC was announced in a typically French way with no prior consultation,” says Duclos. “But it worked because French diplomats and the French president were able to understand the disagreements and points of resistance, and addressed these.”

Macron made it clear that the EPC was not an alternative to EU accession, but a complement to it. This, says Rahman, speaks of “a fundamental shift of mindset in the Élysée and the Quai d’Orsay [France’s foreign ministry]; they now realise that if the EU does not draw in the states between its borders and Russia, they will be fair game to Moscow in terms of propaganda and hybrid warfare”. The result was an inaugural EPC summit in Prague on 6 October at which EU aspirant states were treated as equals to members – a watershed for the union but especially for France, long the champion of a more exclusive European project.

[See also: The Ukraine war is shifting Europe’s balance of power from west to east]

The successful EPC summit behind him, on 9 November Emmanuel Macron gave a major speech in Toulon, the Mediterranean home port of the French navy. In it, he unveiled a new strategic review for France and restated his impressions of a chaotic, dangerous world: “This [Ukraine] war also clarifies… the weakening of norms and taboos, the intoxication of appetites,” he said, before paraphrasing Antonio Gramsci: “It qualifies this dangerous moment, when the old balance is challenged and the new [balance] is not yet achieved.” Once more he committed to reconciling a revitalised French role as a puissance d’équilibre with the goal of European sovereignty: “By 2030, I want France to have consolidated its role as a balancing, united, radiant, influential power, a driving force for European autonomy.”

Yet Macron’s speech in Toulon also contained signs of a revision, renouncing the Gaullist turn of 2019. In it, Nato was no longer suffering “brain death” but was “the foundation and essential framework for Europe’s collective security”. Russia’s strategic choices were “irreversible” and France had to “anticipate a confrontation with Moscow based on a trio of competition, challenge and confrontation… over a long period of time, in multiple regions and spaces”.

France’s failed Opération Barkhane in the Sahel would come to an end. Relations with the UK, long fraught, would be “raised to another level”. And defence integration with Germany would be accorded new prominence in Paris. Soon after the Toulon speech, on 18 November, Macron duly struck a new agreement with Germany and Spain on the €100bn Future Combat Air System, an integrated defence project without precedent in European history.

It is an evolution more than a transformation. Macron will doubtless continue to aggravate with unhelpful comments and acts of underconsulted unilateralism. At points he will likely continue to miss opportunities to build common European positions by defaulting to the old Gaullo-Mitterandist vision of an independent, balancing-power France. He will almost certainly rile the US with his bid to position Paris as a bridge between Washington and Beijing. He will, in other words, remain in many respects a typical French president – a product and archetypical occupant of the Salon Doré.

But to dismiss Emmanuel Macron as merely that will be, as it has always been, to underestimate him. It remains the case that he thinks more deeply and acts more ambitiously than any counterpart. Which other world leader has serious ideas about Africa in 2050 and 2100? His fundamental analysis of the world and its “intoxication of appetites” is broadly correct, and compares favourably with a Germany still clinging to old certainties and a UK primarily absorbed in the aftermath of Brexit. Europe will do better led by figures like Macron, who sometimes overreach, than by leaders paralysed by doubt and caution. And while France’s president is wrong to claim there are no trade-offs between a more sovereign Europe and an independent global role for France, he is not entirely wrong to pursue elements of both: we do live both in a world of big blocs, but also one where nimble, individual states can carve out distinct roles. A dash of “en même temps” still has its place in international affairs.

[See also: Liz Truss and the rise of the libertarian right]

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This article appears in the 30 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, World Prince