When Emmanuel Macron was elected just over two and a half years ago, his ambitions stretched a long way. He described the presidential role as being like Jupiter, and believed that the momentum that took him to the Elysée would excite forces far beyond France’s borders. He hoped to deliver a ‘European renaissance’ that would overhaul the continent’s political structures. Only last year, he addressed a letter to the ‘citizens of Europe’ describing his vision of renewal.
But he might have noticed by now that even in France his hold seems rather tenuous. And at present, the country is not a great advert for Macronism. In recent weeks we’ve had transportation paralysed, hundreds of cars burning in the suburbs, violent demonstrations in the cities, whiffs of tear gas in the Métro and police beating protesters. Train drivers, air traffic controllers, nurses, opera singers and ballet dancers have gone on strike. Even the lawyers have joined in. If the country is not wholly immobilised, that’s because the French are pretty adaptable and, to be honest, some only pretend to strike. My garbage was picked up as usual.
Macron promised to unblock the French economy, but although unemployment is down a bit, it is still at 8.5 per cent, more than double that of Germany or the UK. In spite of his overtures to the Davos set, whom he invited for a blingy reception at the Palace of Versailles, France continues to export capital and brains. Macron talks of civility, but there have been 61 consecutive weekends of street protests, many of them characterised by extraordinary levels of violence, including by the police. He may have control over the National Assembly, but his efforts to gain ground in municipal elections in March seem shaky, especially in the south. His party, En Marche, is more of a personality cult than a political movement and it doesn’t have much ground game. His mission to unseat the socialist mayor of Paris looks doomed. Only the most hardcore of his fans remain unshaken by this remarkably dismal performance.
Until recently, Macron was able to cheer himself up with his international profile. For bien-pensants everywhere, he has been a hero, an anti-Trump: brainy not impulsive; centrist not populist; cultured not vulgar; a product of meritocracy, not of inheritance or privilege. One magazine ran a cover that depicted him walking on water. EU enthusiasts cheered on his willingness to do a no-deal Brexit, the better to show Brits that there can be no comfortable life outside the European Union. But in recent months, even Macron’s foreign fans have seemed to be giving up on him.
Macron has tried no end of personal diplomatic initiatives. None has been successful. Indeed his talent for losing friends and alienating people seems to know no limit. Lately, he has been cosying up to Putin, suggesting that Russia should be an ally rather than an adversary, which has infuriated his existing allies. When he denounced Nato as ‘brain-dead’, he ended up being attacked by Donald Trump and admonished by Angela Merkel, who was quoted as saying that she understood Macron’s ‘desire for disruptive politics’ but was ‘tired of picking up the pieces’. After boasting that he could manage Trump, Macron went to Capitol Hill to scorn the President’s climate policy. It’s unclear what this has achieved. He has had to suspend his tax on America’s digital giants because Trump was threatening a 100 per cent tariff on French wine and cheese. ‘We will work together on a good agreement to avoid tariff escalation,’ tweeted Macron. ‘Excellent!’ replied Trump, clearly the victor.
There is another world leader, however, who could yet rescue Macron’s presidency. Intriguingly, incredibly, the French leader’s new best friend is Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Macron has suddenly stopped dis-respecting les rosbifs, something he did publicly at every opportunity, often several times a week, as he travelled around France calling Brexit insane and nationalist and propelled by liars. Yet now he appears to have fallen under BoJo’s spell.
What’s changed? Well, for a start, Macron likes power — and Johnson has plenty of it. With a majority of 80 and a five-year mandate, the Prime Minister is now one of the most stable leaders in Europe — a point not lost on the Americans and others seeking solid allies.
The career paths of Macron and Johnson could hardly have been more different. Both are products of their nation’s elite education system (Oxford for Johnson, École nationale d’administration for Macron) but Johnson went on to be a brilliant, incendiary journalist, whereas Macron became a clever but anonymous technocrat.
Boris entered politics with high ambitions but a sense of fun. Macron stayed in the shadows, emerging seemingly from nowhere to seize the presidency from his gormless boss, François Hollande. Boris improvises. Macron plans everything. Boris likes women and is with someone 24 years his junior. Macron married his high-school drama teacher, 24 years his senior.
Yet there is something going on between these two. The body language says they like each other. The video from the Nato summit reception at Buckingham Palace in December, at which Macron and Boris were literally shoulder-to-shoulder as they revelled in Justin Trudeau’s mockery of Trump, was telling. In Paris last summer, Boris was denounced for sticking his feet on the designer furniture in the Elysée — but Macron was photographed actually laughing.
What might these two enfants terribles get up to? An especially curious geometry presents itself in a post-Brexit era, when little will be more important to the British than preserving civility with the French. Brexit talks are about to start again, and it would suit the Prime Minister to have a president who knows which side his baguette is buttered. The absence of a trade deal could tip both the UK and the eurozone into recession.
And there’s much scope for these two leaders to work together. Macron needs help in his overextended foreign policy. France’s grinding conflict against militant Islamism in Africa looks bloody and inconclusive, as instability spreads in an expanding area of operations. Thirteen French troops died in a single incident in Mali a few weeks ago. Faced with further setbacks, Macron summoned African leaders to Paris last week, where he threatened to withdraw, but ended up committing 200 more troops.
In this fight, Britain is the only capable military ally France can call on. The Germans are useless. Theresa May promised France RAF logistic support — but failed to demand a quid pro quo on the Brexit front. Boris might well offer more substantial assistance, but in return he’d want to see Anglo-French co-operation expressing itself in trade talks.
France also has gigantic stakes in British energy, transport and services. The City remains the dominant financial player in the EU, offering services vital to EU governments and businesses. And the Islamist security threat is common on both sides of the channel.
So there are numerous reasons why, after trashing the UK for more than two years, Paris has softened its tone. The latest olive branch is Macron’s proposal to award London the Légion d’honneur for its resistance during the second world war. If Johnson can maintain this budding friendship, and he and Macron manage to build a new entente cordiale, it could become a cornerstone of European relations for years to come, benefiting them both.
Macron also has ambitions to save the nuclear deal with Iran, bringing the ayatollahs in from the cold by reviving the agreement Trump has torn up. Earlier this month, his plan seemed to have been shot down, literally in flames, with America’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani. But listen carefully and you can hear some British support for the French position: in his first interview of the year, the Prime Minister said it was time for a ‘Trump deal’ — in other words, one that allowed the White House to take the credit.
For all his troubles, Macron faces no serious leftist or centrist challenger. It is still pretty much a choice between him or Marine Le Pen and her nativist, economically incoherent Rassemblement National party. At the Elysée he’s digging in for the long haul. Insiders say he’s made the place his own, more or less abandoning the ceremonial presidential office for a new hyper-modern command centre dominated by an enormous concrete desk by the star designer Francesco Passaniti, installed recently to much sweating and groaning by the déménageurs. Le Figaro magazine ran a picture of him sitting at it, his fawning wife Brigitte at his shoulder. A source close to the president told the magazine: ‘What’s fascinating is that reality matters less to him than the story he can make of it.’ Eat your heart out, Donald Trump.
It is Macron’s luck that French voters who never warmed to him, and who on the whole like him less than ever, may still find him the lesser evil. And having Boris as his friend may humanise him in the eyes of French voters, who seem to rather admire the roguish new Prime Minister, so terriblement British. Perhaps Boris can teach Macron how to lighten up, make a pithy speech, perhaps even tell a joke. Macron still seems likely to preside over the Paris Olympics in 2024. London 2012 was a triumph for Johnson; he could offer the French President a few tips. How does this bromance end? It won’t be known until the fat lady sings, and presently she’s on strike.
Jonathan Miller is the author of France a Nation on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (Gibson Square). He tweets at @lefoudubaron.
Spectator.co.uk/podcast Jonathan Miller on Macron’s new bromance.