The week Macron’s grand diplomatic project floundered

The low point in a dire week for President Emmanuel Macron came during a press conference on Wednesday when a reporter confronted him with a jibe from an old adversary: Donald Trump.

The former US president, who alternately embraced and clashed with his French counterpart, had taken issue with Macron’s state visit to Beijing earlier this month. “Macron, who’s a friend of mine, is over with China kissing [Xi’s] ass,” Trump told Fox News.

Macron, who was on a state visit to the Netherlands, declined to respond. But the fact that he faced the question at all four days after his return to Europe was a sign of how badly he had mangled both the symbolism and the messaging around his carefully planned China trip.

Not only did Macron have little to show from efforts to convince Xi to limit his support for Russia, he created a diplomatic uproar with an interview on the flight home in which he called on Europe to develop its own stance independent of the US to deal with tensions between Beijing and Taiwan.

“The great risk” for Europe is that it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy,” Macron said, warning against becoming “vassals” to the US or China. Politicians, diplomats and analysts on both sides of the Atlantic called the remarks tone-deaf and ill timed given the US has backed European security by bankrolling Ukraine’s defence.

At the press conference in Amsterdam, an exasperated-looking Macron tried to draw a line under the episode by explaining that France is for the status quo on Taiwan, remains a staunch ally of the US and wants Europe to present a united front on China. But he could not resist repeating a line that had enraged many of his European partners: “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal.” 

For François Heisbourg, a European security analyst, this week encapsulated all that has gone wrong with Macron on foreign policy since the war in Ukraine upended the global security order.

Although the French president arguably has the right diagnosis that Europe needs to become a stronger, more independent power, he says, Macron has been an ineffective messenger and displayed a dangerous naivete, first towards Russia in the run-up to war and now with China.

“It is a romantic way of doing foreign policy,” Heisbourg says. “Macron really believes that with his intellect and his charm, he can convince leaders like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to act differently.” 

Macron remains, like other modern French presidents since General Charles de Gaulle, guided by the idea that France has a special role to play in foreign affairs — with a seat on the UN Security Council and now the sole EU country with the nuclear bomb — and that means defining its own foreign policies apart from the US. He is wedded to the concept of France as a “balancing power” between superpower-aligned blocs.

But in trying to put the theory into practice he has often provoked diplomatic controversies. He infuriated Berlin and the EU’s eastern members in 2019 with a freelance initiative to reset relations with Vladimir Putin and Russia. He followed up by declaring Nato “braindead”. In the middle of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine, he said Moscow must not be “humiliated” and would need security guarantees.

Several of these controversies have been triggered by unguarded interviews to the media, often on the plane back from foreign trips, prompting some observers to quip the president perhaps has a problem with cabin pressure.

But his comments this week, appearing to blame the US for the tensions over Taiwan, have caused the widest-ranging furore so far.

Although other EU capitals share French concerns about Sino-American brinkmanship over Taiwan and US pressure for economic de-coupling from China, the president’s remarks eclipsed efforts by Brussels to engineer a more coherent EU stance on Beijing. 

On her own visit to China this week, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock disavowed the French leader’s comments and warned China not to use military force on Taiwan.

Governments in eastern Europe were especially irritated by Macron’s plea for the EU to acquire greater “strategic autonomy” and become a “third superpower” instead of being “followers”, accusing him of failing to learn the lessons of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Without US military and financial aid to Kyiv — more than 30 times that of France — Ukrainian resistance would have crumbled.

Speaking in Washington this week, Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki countered Macron’s viewpoint, saying the EU needed a “strategic partnership” with the US rather than “concepts formulated by others in Europe, concepts that create more threats, more question marks, more unknowns”.

The French president’s apparent disregard for the fundamental security interests of the countries on the EU’s eastern flank has undermined trust in him and his capacity to articulate an EU viewpoint, say analysts and EU officials.

With his approval ratings plummeting domestically after months of protests over his unpopular pensions reform, Macron might have hoped his trip to China would strengthen his claim to be Europe’s strategic thinker and diplomat in chief. Instead he looks increasingly isolated and out of favour with his European partners.

“He wants to shake up things and wake up people,” says Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations and a strong advocate of European strategic autonomy. “But he’s frightening people and dividing countries from each other.”

The think-tanker-in-chief

It’s a far cry from 2017, when Macron celebrated his election in front of the Louvre in Paris to the strains of the EU anthem. He had campaigned on a pro-EU ticket and had defeated the Eurosceptic, far-right leader Marine Le Pen. After the populist shocks of the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, he carried the hopes of pro-Europeans and aspired to fill a leadership void in Europe created by Angela Merkel as she entered her twilight years as German chancellor.

Macon laid out his ambitions for a stronger Europe in a speech at the Sorbonne University later that year. The EU should strive for “strategic autonomy,” he said — an amorphous concept meaning the union should have its own capacity to act and not be hindered by dependencies on other powers. It was not his original idea, but he gave it propulsion.

The Sorbonne proposals received short shrift in Berlin, but many of them have since taken shape and the EU undeniably carries a greater French imprint since then.

The French president persuaded Merkel to support a pandemic recovery fund backed by common EU borrowing, a watershed moment in integration. The EU has also embraced industrial policy and adopted multiple policies to protect its internal market from unfair competition.

To a degree, the strategic autonomy agenda has also taken root. The EU is taking measures to reduce its supply chain dependencies, such as on chips and electric batteries, and has created instruments, such as a facility to fund military operations, which has been used to support Ukraine.

But autonomy in security and defence, given temporary momentum by the Trump presidency, was always contentious with many EU capitals seeing it as the latest manifestation of France’s drive to weaken the Atlantic alliance — a suspicion only magnified by Macron’s “vassal” comment this week.

“You cannot build European strategic autonomy explicitly against the United States, although Macron would always say, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this. I’m not against the United States. I just want Europe to be independent,’” says Puglierin. “But his rhetoric and the way he puts it and especially in this latest interview, always has this anti-American tone in it.”

Macron’s foreign policy approach to the US stems from the historic line France has held since de Gaulle — namely to be “a friend and ally, but not aligned”, says Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister and top Élysée Palace official under François Mitterrand. Paris would stand with allies in tough moments but still keep its freedom.

Védrine, an intellectual influence on Macron who still regularly speaks to the president, was once an ardent proponent of the concept, but he admits that it may no longer be realistic. “The idea is still good even today, but France truly can’t play this role any more — its economy has weakened too much to make it credible as a power,” he said.

Macron’s foreign policy woes stem as much from his method as from substance, say former officials and analysts. Strong on concepts, he is weaker at diplomatic bridge-building and sometimes says too much publicly. He relishes debate and eschews short answers to questions, offering instead historical context and complexity, symbolised by his catchphrase en même temps (at the same time).

This earned him the label of a “think-tanker-in-chief” who brilliantly analyses issues, yet cannot deliver results given France’s role as a midsized power.

“Macron is a narcissist who cannot recognise his errors,” says one former French diplomat. “His big problem is that he thinks above all about ideas and concepts and not about tactics, so he says the wrong things at the wrong time.”

Can Macron change his ways at home or abroad? Sceptics doubt it.

He has repeatedly promised to govern in a less top-down manner and be more sensitive to the struggles of the working class, such as after the gilets jaunes crisis in 2018. On the night of his re-election against Marine Le Pen last year, he vowed to heal divisions and recognised that some voters had backed him to block the far right and not because they agreed with his policies.

Those conciliatory words have proven hollow: he chose to ram through the pensions reform to raise the retirement age to 64, which is opposed by two-thirds of the population, without a parliamentary vote even after months of street protests. His ability to govern has been hampered by his party losing its parliamentary majority, imperilling second-term agendas, such as reaching full employment.

Macron also seems ready to stick to his guns on foreign policy. In a speech in the Netherlands this week that focused largely on economic independence and competitiveness, he said making Europe more “sovereign” was “central to my political project”.

But now, isolated both at home and on the world stage, it is unclear where Macron can find the political capital to bring his project to fruition.

Additional reporting by Sam Fleming in Brussels

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