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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 9 December 2018

French president returns from Washington to challenges at home

Emmanuel Macron may be the greatest French statesman in a generation

French President Emmanuel Macron in the Elysée Palace in Paris after returning from a feted trip to the US. Christian Hartmann / AFP 
French President Emmanuel Macron in the Elysée Palace in Paris after returning from a feted trip to the US. Christian Hartmann / AFP 

Flying back to Paris and amid gushing television coverage of his visit to the United States, France’s dynamic young president Emmanuel Macron may have hoped that his three days in the Washington limelight would offer a helpful distraction from troubles at home.

Disruptive strikes by workers on the national rail network SNCF and at Air France, blockades by students, and rumblings of discontent in other sectors all reflect a France riven by deep divisions.

Some in France endorse the Macron philosophy that there is a pressing need to force through long-overdue reforms that past governments have failed to introduce. For others, he is just another champion of capitalism. Left-dominated unions in particular long to revive the revolutionary spirit of half a century ago, when the Paris Spring of 1968 brought the country to a near-standstill.

Opinions polls are inconclusive but suggest Mr Macron has recovered somewhat from a slump in popularity suffered in the months following his emphatic victory over the far right leader Marine le Pen in last May’s presidential elections. But his presidency still has only minority approval – 44 per cent according to one recent survey. Paradoxically, more than 60 per cent of those questioned in the same poll still considered him right to confront railway workers widely seen as strike-happy and privileged.

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Reactions to his Washington visit though suggest it is in international diplomacy where Mr Macron is making a mark.

In recent times, particularly since France under Jacques Chirac opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, American attitudes towards France can be neatly encapsulated in the image of the "cheese-eating surrender monkey" conjured by a line in an episode of The Simpsons.

Mr Macron's performance in the US capital though won widespread, if not universal acclaim, reinforcing a growing feeling while he may not yet be "leader of the free world", he is already a greater European statesman than his predecessors Mr Chirac, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.

His speech to Congress – delivered in near-perfect English, itself a rarity for French heads of state – received a standing ovation from Democrats. By contrast Republicans were less enthusiastic, fully aware that key parts of his speech took indirect aim at their president's policies, even if Mr Macron avoided singling out Donald Trump by name. One report talked of groans and rolling eyes as the French president talked up the merits of the Paris accord on climate change, from which Mr Trump is withdrawing.

Yet the plaudits came from afar. A number of American and British Twitter users posted messages expressing envy of France and its new, centrist figurehead. Former England footballer and television presenter Gary Lineker tweeted that Mr Macron was “charismatic and smart”, asking: “Can we borrow him?”

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It probably did no harm to the French president that he left Washington without having persuaded Mr Trump on the merits of sticking with the Iranian nuclear deal any more than they agreed on global trade or climate change. Beyond the far right, there is little obvious affection in Europe for Mr Trump.

Nevertheless, even overlooking the intensity of their much-studied handshakes, the two presidents have apparently established a high degree of personal rapport.

The Washington Post talked of “the true beginning of an unlikely friendship, or bromance”, even though much of Mr Macron’s speech to Congress might have been made by the last US president, Barack Obama, whose policies Mr Trump condemns.

The same newspaper also noted that despite the cooler reception from Mr Trump’s fellow Republicans to Mr Macron’s comments on environmental and economic issues, they – as well as Democrats– “beamed, hooted and leaped to their feet more than two dozen times” as he praised US-French ties and the Trump administration’s attempts to denuclearise North Korea.

Mr Macron still faces plenty of criticism. The French left berates him for allegedly attacking public services and slavishly pursuing a pro-business agenda. In a classic French display of indignation, some on social media questioned his use of English for some tweets about the US visit.

The French president will face relatively little domestic hostility for having stood up to “isolationism, withdrawal, and nationalism”, his words in Washington and unambiguous criticism of Mr Trump’s policies.

But political opponents detected an obsequious element to his approach.

The Elysée complained about “vulgar humour with a touch of homophobia” after Mr Hollande, his socialist predecessor and former mentor, said he was a president for the very rich and the “passive” half of the Macron-Trump “couple”.

Even so, Mr Macron left the US feeling “extremely pleased” with his visit. On disagreeing with Mr Trump, he said: “I think it’s life. It’s the same thing in all families.”

The socialism he theoretically espoused when serving in Mr Hollande's government, and before launching his La République En Marche movement, is long gone. Yet beyond the political hurly-burly, it is clear he has his work cut out in seeking to persuade dissenters – notably the striking rail and airline workers and truculent students appalled by the prospect of reform – that they are family, too.