Hanging out with world’s bad boys no good for France

Politics is a dirty business and Macron is an amateur compared with Trump...

30 May 2018
By Simon Heffer

It is a traditional ruse of political leaders whose honeymoon is over, and who are finding their countries not quite so easy to govern as they had imagined when campaigning, to shift the focus from domestic to international policies.

With students and trade unionists ganging up on him, Jean-Luc Mélenchon calling for a new popular front to take him on, and crime so out of control in some cities that he has claimed France has lost the war on drug trafficking, Emmanuel Macron has redoubled his attempt to paint himself as a global player. In recent weeks he has been to the White House and St Petersburg; he busies himself incessantly on European questions; and is now trying to broker a settlement in Libya to give that country something approaching stable governance.

This creates an impression of frenzied activity, and reassures the French that their country still matters.

However, the true results of M Macron’s global grandstanding are less obvious. He was an aspirational player in international statesmanship from the start, raising eyebrows by asking Donald Trump to France’s Bastille Day celebrations last year. The briefing was that the new French president would be Mr Trump’s bridge not just to Europe, but to a civilized world that mostly believed American politics was giving off a distinctly unpleasant odour. It was as if M Macron alone possessed the genius required to interpret Mr Trump and house-train him. It was not to be.

Politics is a dirty business, and although M Macron himself has been known to dip his hands in the mud – ask his former patron François Hollande – he is an amateur compared with Mr Trump. The American president has two priorities far superior to doing favours for M Macron, or any other international leader who wishes to aggrandize him or herself by jumping on the American bandwagon: securing his own position and, closely related to that, doing enough for the Americans who voted for him to make them want to vote for him, and his party, again.

Mr Trump, in recently repudiating the nuclear deal with Iran, could not care less that M Macron (like other Europeans) deplores this upset.
M Macron was useful to Mr Trump last year in that he gave him the image of international acceptability: don’t forget that another of M Macron’s new best friends, Angela Merkel, more or less warned Mr Trump at the time of his election that the rest of the world would be watching him to see how he behaved.

M Macron is very much part of a world order of centrist, liberal politics in which he seeks pre-eminence: it clearly amuses him that he can hang out with the bad boys, especially when this bad boy is such a big boy too.

Mr Trump has moved on; a poll shows most French voters fear M Macron is “too aligned” with his American confrère. That is far from the truth: M Macron’s policies and style are nothing like Mr Trump’s, but it shows that he has been damaged by his avaricious association with him. Therefore M Macron has turned his attention to other matters, notably his determination to achieve reform of the eurozone, not least by unifying its banking system. This finds no favour with the Germans, whose coalition parties cannot agree among themselves on the question; and M Macron’s enthusiasm for the EU is not only an increasingly minority sport in his own country, but is rapidly going out of favour around the continent.

Frau Merkel, like a doting mother, metaphorically pats him on the head whenever he outlines his various visionary schemes for Europe, but then rapidly changes subject.

Clever enough to realize he is being patronized, M Macron is presumably biding his time until Frau Merkel leaves the European stage, when he will regard it as his rightful place to take over the moral leadership of the EU. The institution may, though, look very different by then.

M Macron needs to put less idealism, and more cynicism, into his political calculations, both at home and abroad. Like centrists all over Europe he has argued for deeper integration – and, indeed he is right. If the euro is not to be a disaster there needs to be not just a unified banking system, but unified systems of taxation and public spending and a pooling of sovereign debt. That has always looked unlikely, because it means the final eradication of economic and therefore of most political sovereignty.

But the great Macron plan for Europe now looks as though it will be derailed by Italy, where the new government appears to have a mandate from the people to put a large bomb under the whole European project, starting with the single currency. Equally, Hungary is leading a rebellion on freedom of movement and Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, has formed a new party that promises to repudiate its euro debt and dares Brussels to do its worst in response.

When one looks at French popular attitudes in recent weeks, and recalls that half the electorate did not support M Macron in the election, a distinct turn in French public opinion could happen at any moment and, indeed, may already be under way.

M Macron seems to make the mistake of thinking that his election last year was because the French public shared his idealism, never better expressed than on the world stage. He was elected because the favourite was crippled by a financial scandal, the socialist party evaporated, and Marine Le Pen remains a minority taste. He would be well advised to remember that, for it is only by operating with more circumspection and less bravura that he will command the respect of his peers abroad – and actually achieve anything at all.

Column by political commentator and historian Simon Heffer, who is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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