Just two months from the presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron’s self-belief and risk-taking — not to mention setbacks — seem to know few bounds. And no more so than in foreign affairs. Following the French President’s telephone conversation with Vladimir Putin over Ukraine on 20 February, the Elysée triumphantly announced that a Biden-Putin summit was agreed in principle, only for the Kremlin to pour cold water on the idea the next morning. Washington then followed suit, before Putin announced the recognition of the two breakaway Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
This humiliation comes after Macron’s Moscow visit on 7 February, which concluded with a live press conference in which Putin gently put down the French President’s youthful enthusiasm and suggestion that Russia had agreed to freeze escalation.
Macron had hitherto seen himself as the great international powerbroker. He struck up a strategic dialogue with Putin in 2019, essentially unilaterally, but on behalf of Europe, making many in Brussels uncomfortable. Macron laboured under the impression that he was the Putin whisperer, just as he thought he had been with Donald Trump.
We now see what many had suspected for some time: that Putin was playing Macron. The French President’s enthusiasm for negotiating directly with Putin may have worsened things by granting him diplomatic cover. Even before the latest military developments, Le Figaro carried an editorial asking whether the politics of ‘appeasement’ were appropriate with Putin.
Macron’s Russian failure comes on top of similar vainglorious forays into other international crises. In late 2017, in a bid to improve dismal Franco-Algerian relations, Macron visited Algiers, bestowing concessions galore, but later plunged relations even lower with an off-the-cuff remark that eventually led to Algeria recalling its ambassador. Two years after the visit, his surprise invitation to the Iranian foreign minister to attend the 2019 Biarritz G7 summit to engineer a breakthrough in Iran’s nuclear talks was also met with failure. In the same year, his grandiose bid to seduce Putin with a personal tour of Versailles evidently flattered Macron more than Putin. The following year, after the massive explosion that devastated Beirut, he rushed to Lebanon threatening to knock heads together unless a serious uncorrupt government was formed, all to no avail.
Then there is Mali, Libya, Aukus. An uncharitable soul might recall that doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results was Einstein’s definition of insanity. So what is behind Macron’s obstinacy? Does he have a game plan? Or is this mere attention-seeking from a young French president with an eye on re-election, convinced that the French will be seduced by displays of France ‘in the front rank’? As with so much of Macron’s thoughts and actions it is all of the above, a simultaneous coexistence of conflicting positions.
Let us begin with the trivial. Macron is the only Fifth Republican president to have studied theatre and to have performed on the stage — albeit school plays, and coached by his schoolteacher and future wife. Study the demeanour and posture adopted for the cameras when sitting at that great Putin negotiating table. Macron engages in performative diplomacy, much as the matinee idol is drawn to the theatrical, with the thespian pose to suit. Post-Brexit, post-Merkel, with a ‘brain-dead’ Nato and a disunited EU, he’s seized the opportunity for a leading role on the international stage.
Yet that’s only one side to Macron. He set out his diplomatic game plan during a speech in August 2019. It requires, in his words, ‘rethinking the international order’ via a strategy of ‘audacity and risk-taking’. Based on a trilogy of ‘security, sovereignty, influence’, his mental map is of geographical concentric circles rippling out from France to EU ‘autonomous sovereignty’, and on to an Indo-Pacific world crafted by French and EU influence. Macron assigns to France the role of ‘balancing power’, which, while recognising and respecting its allies, boldly refuses to adopt the stance that ‘the enemies of our friends are necessarily ours or that we refuse to speak to them’.
It’s an intellectually coherent and detailed blueprint that few contemporary international leaders would dream of drawing up. That Macron thinks he can carry it out is more testimony to his self-belief and the triumph of reason over practicality.
This was also de Gaulle’s diplomatic strategy. But he had the international stature to implement it, which is why by the end of the 1960s France had regained much of her international prestige and was able to play a mediating role between the world’s two blocs. This might be the grand vision at the heart of Macron’s foreign and security policy, but his inability to bring others with him hamstrings his international crusade.
Macron’s strategy towards Russia is couched in the theoretical rather than the practical. He’s taken a leaf from de Gaulle’s playbook, itself based on cultivating Franco-Russian relations for geo-strategic reasons. France has sought relations with Russia ever since German unification in 1871. Indeed, the 1892 Franco-Russian military alliance was Paris’s insurance policy against Germany, henceforth condemned to fight on two fronts.
Even in the interwar years, with a resurgent Germany, France sought closer relations with the USSR, and attempted the same during the Cold War. This was often at odds with Britain (and later Washington). That’s why Macron’s courting of Russia elicits cynicism, even charges of ‘appeasement’, when viewed from the Anglosphere.
At its core, Macron’s Russia strategy seeks to reconcile Russia and Europe. Like de Gaulle, he craves a ‘European Europe’ freed from Atlantic influence, even if this is not to the taste of many EU member states. Macron will have been pleased at Germany’s side lining over the Ukraine crisis. It was ever the Gaullist dream that Germany should demur to France. Macron has been milking to the limit France’s six-month tenure as President of the European Council and many member states feel he is using the bloc for French ends — not to say his own. As Macmillan said of de Gaulle: ‘He speaks “Europe”, but means “France”.’
At the same time, there is for some a more cynical and short-term explanation for Macron’s cultivation of Putin. Several presidential candidates, from the right’s Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen to the left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, have called for a reset in relations with Russia. Zemmour and Le Pen, who together represent some 30 per cent of voting intentions, see Putin’s Russia as a bulwark against political Islam, a defence of western Judeo-Christian values, issues that appeal to an increasingly right-wing France. All now have egg on their faces.
Macron’s problem is that, while he is intellectually streets ahead of most inter-national leaders, his unbridled self-belief, arrogance and a remarkable inability to retain alliances lead to failed policies at home and abroad. He’s taken considerable risk in thinking he alone could control Putin. He announced recently he would not declare his candidacy until Covid was beaten and the Ukraine crisis stabilised. The limit for candidates to declare is 4 March, and Ukraine is in a worse state of affairs than ever. The Élysée is incandescent at the humiliation, lashing out at Putin as ‘paranoid’. The failure is sure to be worked on by Macron’s presidential rivals. His track record as an international powerbroker could now cost him dear at the ballot box.
Macron attempted to answer the Kissinger question: ‘Who do I call if I want to call Europe?’ The problem is, for all his attempts to say ‘Europe c’est moi’, Macron is viewed as speaking above all for himself.