More than 60 world leaders were gathered before him, but Macron’s pointed remarks seemed directed to an audience of one: U.S. President Donald Trump, who arrived alone and late to the ceremony, and sat through Macron’s speech with a grim expression.
In this and other ways during the two days he spent in France, however, Trump managed to upstage Macron. While the French president’s eloquent speech earned him plaudits, Trump stole what most matters to a thespian like Macron: the spotlight.
One can only sympathize with Macron, who undoubtedly had a radically different script in mind for Sunday’s long-planned gathering. When he took office in May 2017, Macron helped break a string of jolting electoral victories and near-victories by populists in Europe and America. It’s not hard to imagine the triumphant plans he must have had back then. After a short wait for German Chancellor Angela Merkel to win re-election, they would together push through a raft of reforms to strengthen the EU and address the grievances fueling the rise of anti-liberal governments and far-right parties across the continent. Though Merkel’s backing would be crucial for the reforms to succeed, Macron had always been seen as the driving force behind them. With the World War I centennial putting France front and center as host, Macron would bask in the glory, the wunderkind who had saved France, the EU and the world from repeating the errors of a benighted past.
Unfortunately for Macron, reality went just a bit off-script. The first obstacle in his path was already there at the beginning: Trump’s hostility to multilateralism and his willingness to alienate America’s closest European allies. Macron nonetheless took an initial gamble, one determined as much by happenstance as by political calculation. Maybe because Macron, like Trump, was a political maverick whose first elected office was the presidency, or because Macron respectfully stood his ground on their many points of disagreement, the American president surprisingly took a liking to him. Rather than distance himself from the toxic Trump, Macron sought to leverage their warm rapport to sway him on issues ranging from climate change to the Iran nuclear agreement.
But over 18 months, the strategy proved fruitless. Observers dubbed him “the Trump whisperer,” but despite Macron’s private lobbying efforts, Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement and the multilateral Iran deal, and imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on the EU. Macron’s address Sunday, which comes after a similar public disavowal of Trump’s brand-name policies at the U.N. General Assembly in September, signals that Macron now sees little political upside in keeping up appearances of cordiality with his U.S. counterpart.
The balance of power seems to favor leaders who are hostile to Macron’s plans in practice, if not his remarks in principle, over those who can offer him any meaningful support.
He may have little choice in the matter. Trump blasted Macron via Twitter on Saturday morning for a misreported quote about EU defense, and their subsequent bilateral meeting was stiff and pro forma. Perhaps in response to Macron’s public rebuke Sunday, Trump followed up yesterday with an extended Twitter tirade detailing France’s, and Macron’s, domestic woes. Clearly the honeymoon is over, and Macron might just be making virtue out of necessity.
The other obstacle to Macron’s plans was more unexpected: Merkel’s slow political demise following Germany’s inconclusive elections in September 2017. It would have already been a tall order getting the notoriously cautious Merkel to sign on to Macron’s ambitious EU reforms under the best of circumstances, let alone against the backdrop of an anti-immigrant backlash driving a shift to the right among German voters. The array of forces now aligned against Macron’s grand reforms is daunting: Merkel fatally weakened by her lame-duck status; an anti-EU government newly installed in Italy; weak coalition governments barely staving off anti-EU parties in the Netherlands and across Scandinavia; and illiberal anti-EU governments digging in further in Central and Eastern Europe.
Conceding nothing, Macron has nonetheless turned next year’s elections for the European Parliament into a face-off between his vision of a strengthened EU that doubles down on liberalism, and that of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has championed what he calls “illiberal democracy” and a Fortress Europe that closes itself off to immigration and refugees.
This narrative, Macron’s preferred one, is of course a gross simplification of his own political temperament and agenda. He has himself been accused of harboring an authoritarian streak, expressing a monarchical vision of the exercise of power and demonstrating hostility toward the press. His record on immigration is mixed at best, as illustrated by tensions over migrants at both the Italian and Spanish borders, as well as at the U.K. tunnel crossing at Calais. And his domestic policies, including his tax and labor market reforms, have contributed to the perception of a market-oriented neoliberal turn that benefits only the rich, exacerbating the very grievances that fuel popular rejection of the EU.
Perhaps the most alarming aspect of Macron’s performance Sunday was the makeup of the audience gathered directly before him. They included repressive leaders of adversarial countries, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also of allied ones, like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And even among liberal democracies, the balance of power seems to favor leaders who are hostile to Macron’s plans in practice, if not his remarks in principle, over those who can offer him any meaningful support.
This does not mean that the principles Macron defended are not worth fighting for. True to France’s diplomatic traditions, he did his best to capitalize on a global summit that put French diplomacy front and center. And according to Le Figaro, last weekend represented the opening of a period of heightened diplomatic activity, in which Macron will begin implementing the foreign policy plans he has been laying out internally for the past 18 months.
But while the weekend’s ceremony underscored the degree to which Trump is isolated on the world stage, in other ways it demonstrated that the same is true for Macron. If there is one consolation for Macron, it is that, high-minded principles aside, many of his objectives involve countering Trump’s assault on Europe’s interests. That should make it easier for him to rally support among his divided EU partners. As for the liberal ideals he defended Sunday, he will have his work cut out for him proving what France can achieve when it is, if not isolated, nonetheless essentially alone.
Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every Wednesday.