The strange isolation of Emmanuel Macron

A European nation needs allies — but the French president is struggling to find them

Gideon Rachman


French president Emmanuel Macron's address to the US Congress was regularly interrupted by applause © EPA


Few international leaders cut a dash like Emmanuel Macron. Last week, the French president received a standing ovation from the US Congress. The week before he got the same treatment from the European Parliament. This week, Mr Macron is off to Australia.

At a time when Angela Merkel looks tired, Theresa May looks overwhelmed and Donald Trump looks berserk, the French president radiates energy, charisma and intelligence. His US trip generated laudatory headlines, with a Washington Post column arguing that “the fate of the western alliance is in Macron’s hands” and Politico proclaiming that Mr Macron is now the “new leader of the free world”.

But to lead you have to have followers — or at least close allies. So far, Mr Macron is struggling in that department. He has admirers in many western capitals (and in even more western newsrooms). But there is, as yet, little evidence that he can form international coalitions to shift the direction of world affairs.

This matters because there is a limit to what the leader of a middle-sized European power can do on his own. In recent generations, the most effective French and British statesmen were able to position themselves as shapers of international politics only in alliance with like-minded western leaders.

François Mitterrand, France’s president in the 1980s, worked closely with Helmut Kohl in Germany and Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission. Around the same time, Margaret Thatcher was forging an alliance with Ronald Reagan. In the 1990s, Tony Blair’s claim to be a world leader was burnished by his “third way” alliance with Bill Clinton and Germany’s Gerhard Schröder.

By contrast, Mr Macron — for all his charm — is finding it hard to persuade others to follow his lead. Following his departure from Washington, Mr Trump called his French counterpart a “wonderful guy”. But for all the quirky, dandruff-plucking bonhomie between the two presidents, there is little evidence that Mr Macron was able to shift Mr Trump on anything substantive.

The major differences between the two leaders — on Iran, climate change and protectionism — remain in place. This is hardly surprising since, as Mr Macron made clear in his speech in Washington, he and Mr Trump are at different ends of the ideological spectrum.

The more natural arena for the French president to build alliances is Europe. But even there he is oddly isolated. Mr Macron has made a big bet on persuading Germany to take the next leap towards “ever closer union”, in particular by agreeing to a eurozone budget and finance minister. Yet the undoubted warmth felt towards Mr Macron in official Berlin has not proved enough to get Germany to move towards him. The suspicion that the Macron plan is just a fancy way of getting German taxpayers to fund an over-extended French state remains powerful and prohibitive.

Without strong German support, Mr Macron has few obvious alternatives. Brexit creates a natural divide with the UK, which is accentuated by the British suspicion that France is pushing the European Commission to take a particularly tough line in the negotiations.

The British were very appreciative of French support in the recent confrontation with Russia. But ad hoc moments of strategic co-operation between Britain and France, against the background of Brexit, are not a basis for Mr Macron to be the “leader” of a new western alliance.

France’s other possibilities do not look any more promising. Mr Macron is unwilling to position himself as the leader of a southern European faction, lest this stoke German suspicions of French fiscal laxity. Italy, dominated by the populists of the Five Star movement and the League, is anyway not a natural partner for France. The Dutch, meanwhile, are moulding a new, informal “Hanseatic League” of northern European countries that is even more suspicious of Mr Macron’s proposed eurozone reforms than the Germans.

Central Europe looks even worse. The French president has led the way in condemning “authoritarian democracy”, an unmistakable reference to the current governments of Hungary and Poland. His frankness is welcome and bold. But it is not winning many friends in central European chancelleries.

The one part of the EU where Mr Macron gets full-throated support is Brussels. In the corridors of the European Commission, the French president is regarded as a hero. But elsewhere in Brussels there are complications. The fact that Mr Macron leads a new party, La République en Marche, means that his supporters are not part of the established power structures in the European Parliament — which is a problem when it comes to shaping legislation and parcelling out the top jobs. The danger for Mr Macron is that he could be a leader who is out of tune with the times. At home, he is a liberal economic reformer, at a time when “neoliberalism” has never been less fashionable. He is a pro-European at a time of mounting Euroscepticism across the EU. He is a globalist and an internationalist at a time when protectionism and nationalism are on the march.  There is honour in all those positions. But Mr Macron may be swimming against the tide of history, rather than surfing the wave.

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