French President Emmanuel Macron was, and is, very difficult to handle. Nevertheless, all Western leaders were relieved when he scored a neat victory in the second round of the French presidential elections last Sunday, winning the race with 58.5 per cent of the vote.
His competitor, Marine Le Pen, had all the characteristics that Western establishments dislike. First of all, she has close ties with the Kremlin’s Vladimir Putin, and she said, in a most untimely statement, that she would seek an alliance with Russia after the Ukraine war. Her dive in the polls started after this announcement.
Second, she wants to withdraw France from the integrated NATO command. She no longer wants a “Frexit,” a French exit from the European Union, but all her detailed proposals mean she would have been on a collision course with other European leaders. She has also said some nasty things about Germany.
The economic programme she presented in her campaign was at best unrealistic, at worst absolutely mad. But it was appealing to one of the three Frances we are seeing today: the France of the countryside, the villages, and the middle-sized towns that have lost their industrial base during the last three or four decades. Worryingly, a lot of French workers like her. Macron’s best scores were with the young and the old, those who have yet to work or who have stopped working. But his electorate is also more diverse than Le Pen’s.
That said, dealing with Macron has been terribly difficult and will remain so. First of all, all powers are concentrated in his hands, and French ministries like foreign affairs and defence seldom know what he is planning or what his current thoughts are or next moves will be. More often than not, he relies on two-track diplomacy and seeks advice from many sources, including former presidents and foreign ministers, former politicians, academics, think tankers, intellectuals, people from NGOs, and old friends. But he does not use the French Foreign Ministry’s incredible expertise.
Nobody can claim to be his main adviser. He frequently surprises other Western leaders and the French state with blunt and ill-timed statements, unexpected and astonishing proposals, and sudden U-turns. He intervenes in topics and areas where he exerts no influence. He permanently brainstorms, is a workaholic, does not sleep much, and has an incredible memory. He also exerts relentless pressure on his colleagues and subordinates. He wants clear answers and options, and he wants to lead.
I cannot claim that his ideas are not mainstream in France, but there is something that is both stimulating and irritating in his behaviour and in his insistence and in the way he focuses that does not pay attention to his partners’ concerns. The main source of tension with his own Foreign Ministry has been Russia.
Macron firmly believes that Russia is a part of Europe and that it would be a mistake to antagonise it and let it opt for an alliance with China. He thought Russia’s security concerns should be addressed, or at least understood. In the French foreign policy community, a clear majority was sceptical of this. In theory, Macron’s reasoning was sound. There is, however, a huge caveat: you need two to tango. You need to be two to be friends. If I decide we are enemies, I do not need your approval. We are enemies. Russian President Vladimir Putin decided long ago that Russia and the West were irreconcilable foes.
I do not want to discuss Macron’s assessment of Russia here. He thought he could succeed where so many others have failed in engaging Russia. Many specialists politely warned him against it. He did not listen, and he was wrong. He invested a lot of time and energy in it with no returns, as we all now know.
Macron is a firm believer in the European Union project. He believes in it for many reasons, the main one being his belief in France’s universal mission and in its independence and strategic autonomy. He understands that if France wants to remain a top-league player, it needs to be European, in other words, a leading part of a large and efficient European Union. Alone, it is not large enough.
In our information and data age, for instance, the big players are either American or Chinese. On security issues, Europe is too dependent on US arms and good will. But European and US interests often diverge. For instance, the situation in Libya and in the Sahel and Sahara is a huge challenge for Europe. Moreover, the US wants to focus on China and will reduce its presence in Europe. Europe must be in charge of its own defence.
Macron is probably right in his diagnosis, but things are much more complicated than this. First, he needs Germany’s support if he wants to achieve progress. He earlier understood this, of course, and started his first mandate as president by working hard to secure former German chancellor Angela Merkel’s support. He achieved some progress, but he compromised everything with two statements: one on a European army in November 2018 and then one on “NATO’s cerebral death” in November 2019.
The timing of the first one was awful, as Merkel had difficult negotiations in hand with other German political forces. Moreover, it looked like an endorsement of her competitors’ views. And, of course, the French administration was as surprised as Berlin at what Macron said. The second one targeted the destructive role played by Turkey, but the Europeans and Americans understood it as an attempt to separate the US from Europe.
There are two ways of building the case for a European defence system. You can say this it is needed to strengthen NATO and the alliance with the US, or you can say that it will allow Europe to free itself from Washington’s tutelage. French diplomacy oscillates between the two, and this disturbs its European partners, who clearly see they need and will continue to need the protection provided by the US.
On the other hand, France has a point when it says that the US does not pay enough attention to some other countries’ concerns.
The main problem with Macron’s approach, however, has been its apparent lack of concern for the interests of the Eastern European countries. This is probably changing now, thanks to Putin’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.
Macron has seemed to assume that the interests of all the European countries were the same, or that they could at least be reconciled. Worse, he kept on criticising countries governed by forces he did not like. But if you want a United Europe, you cannot criticise Poland, Italy, Hungary, and so on. You need to have a better understanding of Germany. And, above all, you have to show respect for all the European countries.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.