Emmanuel Macron is having a great PR day. The international press has dubbed him a “liberal hero” and the “new leader of the free world” after he stood up to Donald Trump and criticised, in English, the US president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. His social-media-ready “Make Our Planet Great Again” catchphrase is attracting widespread praise online. Considering his own shaky ecological record, we should be wary of his new green credentials, but nonetheless it was a much-needed response which he will hopefully turn into policy.
His intervention was also made more important by the lack of similar statements from some other leaders, most notably UK Prime Minister Theresa May, my colleague India points out. He is absolutely right to say: “There is no Plan B, for there is no Planet B.”
And yet, the bravado earning him respect among the international community today could prove to be a double-edged sword, and Macron’s lack of diplomatic experience makes such bold actions riskier.
As enjoyable as it is to watch, the video of his declaration feels like a real-life, French version of the press conference scene between the UK Prime minister and the American president in the film Love Actually. It is inspiring, it is the right thing to do and the US president very much deserves it. And yet as an act of international diplomacy it goes against pretty much every rule in the book.
The problem is that Macron’s attitude towards Trump has already backfired. In an article about how the US president’s climate decision came about, The Washington Post reported that Macron’s boastful comments in the French press about his handshake with Trump – which he said “wasn’t innocent” and “purposefully forceful” because the meeting was a “moment of truth” – gave his American counterpart the last “nudge” to abandon the climate deal. According to the report:
Hearing smack-talk from the Frenchman 31 years his junior irritated and bewildered Trump, aides said. A few days later, Trump got his revenge. He proclaimed from the Rose Garden, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
With Trump, strong messages have a better chance of penetrating a thick skull, but his childish reaction suggests a less arrogant approach might have been worth a shot. That his massive ego would not appreciate a younger, shinier, headline-stealing, liberal dreamboat of a Frenchman was predictable. As admirable as it is of Macron to refuse to bow to him, the new French president is hopefully too intelligent not to find more subtle ways to oppose him. This is what practiced diplomacy is all about.
At least we can be confident that Macron will learn the ropes quicker than Trump.