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‘President Macron, use the summer to plan France’s global future’

Columnist Simon Heffer has some thoughts on how the French leader could regain power at home and abroad

‘If Macron is to rebuild his influence on the global stage he needs to dispel the idea that he is some sort of admirer of Putin’ (photo taken in 2019) Pic: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

The French political class should enjoy its summer holiday this year. 

Seldom lately can there have been more stress, more disappointment and more opportunity for politicians in such a short period.

Macron should use summer to reflect

For President Macron, whose reputation for arrogance was acquired not least by his habit of speaking before engaging that part of the brain that computes political consequences, time to pause and reflect ought to be especially valuable.

First, he won his second presidential mandate by much less of a margin over Marine Le Pen than he would have wished or expected.

Then he found that the Rassemblement National, his defeated rival’s party, gained its largest ever share of the Assemblée nationale, and his opponents on the hard left took a comparably substantial slice of that cake. 

Read more: Explainer - What is France’s Assemblée nationale and how does it work?

His prime minister, who looked posthumous even before she was appointed, has survived a vote of confidence, but only a brave punter would back her to last much longer.

Macron is not Boris, but his world statesman image is slipping

Part of the price Mr Macron must pay for having such a tenuous hold on French domestic politics is that his aspirations as a world statesman have taken a knock.

His is not the humiliation of his English confrère, Boris Johnson, who after a week of preening at summits of the Commonwealth heads of government, Nato and the G7 returned home to be unceremoniously forced out by his own party after the latest in a series of episodes that marked out his complete unfitness for office.

Read more: ‘The price of lies’: French media react to Johnson’s resignation

Mr Macron is secure for nearly five more years, whatever obloquy and difficulties his opponents throw at him. 

But there is no doubt that what other powers see as a France that threatens to become ungovernable is a serious brake on its president’s aspirations to call the shots on Europe’s, and to an extent on the world’s, stage.

It means that one of the jobs of a head of state – to lead perceptions of their country’s place in the world – may not be as straightforward as Mr Macron would wish.

And the frustration this president of unlimited ambition and ego will feel as a result is likely to be enough to make mere mortals feel almost sorry for him.

Macron thought he would replace Merkel as Europe’s leader

Within the EU, Mr Macron had the ambition to capitalise on his experience in office, and the lack of that of his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, to displace Germany as the de facto leader of the bloc.

Angela Merkel, from early on, occupied that role effortlessly, and during his first term as president Mr Macron radiated the belief that he was some sort of dauphin waiting to succeed to this imperial throne.

It might seem he would be further helped by Germany’s sluggish economic performance.

One of the reasons for Dr Merkel’s unchallenged supremacy was not just her length of service, but the fact she led Europe’s most powerful economy. 

Germany was effectively the paymaster of Europe.

Furthermore, what Dr Merkel lacked in charisma she made up for in sheer competence and authority: Mr Scholz appears to have only the most modest helpings of each.

But Mr Macron, too, presides over an economy that is in poor shape and being attacked by inflation.

Inconsistent statecraft from Macron

He can turn on the statesmanship when required – his speech in July on the 80th anniversary of the round-up in 1942 by French police of French Jews, who were then taken to the Vélodrome d’Hiver in Paris before being shipped to death camps, was exemplary.

He spoke forcefully about the shame the episode had brought upon France, but also sent an unequivocal message to a country in which antisemitic incidents have for years been numerous, and have renewed that legacy of shame.

Yet he also has a tin ear, as in his recent suggestion that Russia should not be humiliated following its invasion of Ukraine.

With a war aim common, it was thought, to NATO and to the EU of expelling Russia from Ukraine and restoring the country’s territorial integrity, that sentiment went down especially badly.

Even worse was that by the time he made this regrettable observation, a rising number of war crimes committed by Russian troops were being uncovered, many of them against women and children and men too old to be in the front line. 

Whatever was he thinking of?

Perhaps it was the same thing that caused him, three years ago, to describe Nato as ‘brain dead’: that was not his finest hour either.

Listen to the global mood music Mr Macron

If he is going to rebuild his influence on the global stage he needs to dispel the idea that he is some sort of admirer of Putin, or at least that he can do business with him and – perhaps – even be the great peace broker.

Again, Mr Macron’s antennae let him down. As far as most other Western countries are concerned Putin is a pariah, and leads a pariah state; and there is no way back for Russia until Putin has gone.

It may be, also, that the President is a little isolated internationally, causing him to form unfortunate opinions.

France needs strong international friends

No-one can blame him for having had a poor relationship with Boris Johnson, who was as good at lying to foreign leaders as he was to his own colleagues, and who struggled to act seriously.

Britain will soon have a new prime minister and Mr Macron would be well advised to try to establish a rapport with him or her, and put Brexit behind him.

Joe Biden is a different sort of problem, as his recent disastrous visit to Saudi Arabia testifies.

Although it may be popular in some quarters to say the opposite, a strong France needs strong friends such as Britain and America.

Despite his problems at home, Mr Macron should be seeking to improve these relationships abroad as swiftly as he can.

Related articles

French politics: President Macron is in office but he is not in power

Enjoy your victory, Mr Macron, but you and France face tough times

Ukraine, energy, pensions: Key points of Macron’s July 14 interview

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