Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 12 December 2019

The French president has Gaullist aspirations but lacks firepower or backing

Emmanuel Macron has global ambitions but has failed to enlist support in his quest for change

French President Emmanuel Macron on November 14. Francois Nascimbeni / AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron on November 14. Francois Nascimbeni / AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron is a world leader with a penchant for challenging inertia. He won the presidency as an outsider of the two-party power structure and has repositioned France on both the European and world stage.

The problem for the French leader is how difficult the task has been of enlisting people in his quest for change.

The second Paris Peace Forum held in the French capital last week illustrated the scale of his ambition and his personal commitment to upending the status quo – but also the damaging mix of indifference and opposition that met his agenda.

Having triggered uproar from around Europe with his remark that Nato, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, was “brain-dead”, Mr Macron refused to backtrack from his comments.

In making overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer, Mr Macron had already split the Europeans. Germany does not want France going it alone and dragging Europe away from its policy of containment and sanctions. Indeed, German officials have briefed that they heard of Mr Macron’s “reset” talks with the Russians not from the French but the Kremlin.

Some French officials have privately conceded they expect no recovery in the key Berlin-Paris foreign policy axis until 2021, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel is due to hand over to a next-generation successor.

In making overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin this summer, Mr Macron had already split the Europeans

The troubles for the French leader do not end there. Grand gestures like the forum are not enough. Almost no American representatives appeared there and relatively few big name European leaders joined. There was a strong African representation but they were largely frustrated.

The contributions from a handful of Sahel leaders was particularly striking. The leaders of Mali, Niger and Chad complained their countries were being let down in the aftermath of the French-led military offensive against Islamist extremists. Given the prestige that Mr Macron invested in the forum, the collective tone of the African presidents' remarks was remarkable in itself.

epa07991198 French President Emmanuel Macron (2-L) poses with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (L), Chad's President Idriss Deby (2-R) and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou (R) at the Elysee Palace as part of the Paris Peace Summit 2019 in Paris, France, 12 November 2019. The international event on global governance issues and multilateralism takes place from 12 to 13 November in Paris. EPA/JOHANNA GERON / POOL MAXPPP OUT
French President Emmanuel Macron with Mali's President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (L), Chad's President Idriss Deby (2-R) and Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou (R) at the Paris Peace Summit 2019 on November 12. Johanna Geron / EPA

Another attendee in Paris, Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary general, warned that extremist threat was on the rise both in the conflict zone and spreading to other parts of West Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. He said the G5 Sahel Joint Force, set up to introduce a multinational stabilisation effort, was in trouble.

The near-5,000-strong Sahel force was severely hampered by a lack of resources and strategic support, according to Mr Guterres. “The Joint Force continues to face significant training, capability and equipment shortfalls, which hamper its full operationalisation,” Mr Guterres said in his report. “The lack of air assets, armoured vehicles and transport capabilities and individual protection equipment compounds the threat posed by the use of improvised explosive devices.”

Coming on the heels of his departure from Paris, the UN intervention signalled one of the biggest French foreign policy commitments was in effect bogged down.

French President Emmanuel Macron meets with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the Elysee palace on the eve of the Paris Peace Summit, France, November 11, 2019. REUTERS/Johanna Geron
French President Emmanuel Macron with UN secretary general Antonio Guterres at the Elysee palace. Johanna Geron / Reuters

Energetic and at times inventive diplomacy by Mr Macron saw multiple attempts to draw Iran and the US to the negotiating table, to no avail. A combination of the raw power of US sanctions and the European collective failure to find a mechanism to sustain trade with Iran stymied the Elysee Palace. The push went nowhere.

Mr Macron has also been actively pursuing a mediating role in the Ukraine crisis. On Friday he announced a four-nation summit between Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France would take place on December 9.

With the US impeachment hearings closely examining Mr Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, it remains to be seen how much appetite the protagonists have for compromise on the issue.

Mr Macron is a politician with not only global aspirations – bridging the differences around the Arabian Gulf is often mentioned – but a man with a clear historical vision.

This allows him to refuse to acknowledge that he has alienated eastern Europe and beyond with his Nato comments. He derided the “priggishness and hypocrisy” of those critical of the idea the institution was brain-dead.

With Britain leaving the EU, there was a chance for Paris and Berlin to come together to create a more effective European presence on the world stage. Paris has constantly gone out of its way to alienate other capitals. Berlin seems less keen to weigh in behind its neighbour while other smaller states are wary of being led by a duopoly in which France was calling the shots.

After the Second World War, general Charles De Gaulle recreated a singular profile for French diplomacy. The country pulled back from Nato and sought to maintain a global presence despite the painful retreat from empire in Vietnam and Algeria. The essence of Gaullist foreign policy was to be seen as strong state with its own agenda and objectives.

Mr Macron seeks a Gaullist reputation and works the French machine to that end. The elusive challenge for Mr Macron is to shape European policy in the same way.

Damien McElroy is the London bureau chief for The National

Updated: November 16, 2019 01:08 PM

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