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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 11 December 2018

Unloved at home, Macron seeks to regain France's place at the global top table

The 39-year-old French president is making the most of his country's diplomatic opportunities

Mr Macron is planning to announce new initiatives on the future of the European Union after German elections next month
Mr Macron is planning to announce new initiatives on the future of the European Union after German elections next month

Emmanuel Macron has provided a check list that will be used to judge the impact of the new French president around the world.

The 39-year old has put French security and global leadership as the priorities for his tenure in the Elysee Palace.

By setting out clear goals and a hectic schedule of state visits, Mr Macron wants to restore French diplomatic prestige. His instruction to 200 ambassadors and leading diplomats was simple: a constant dialogue with all would gain influence and achieve strategic goals.

Winning the battle against Isil in Syria and Iraq — and then the challenge to rebuild both states — is number one priority for France. "The security of the French is the raison d'être of our diplomacy, this requirement is visceral, we must respond without weakening," he said. “Restoring peace and stability — Iraq then Syria — is vital priority for France."

Mr Macron has not shrunk from addressing the root cause of the spate of terror attacks that has forced France to maintain a state of emergency since 2015. “Yes this is Islamist terrorism. There’s no place for naivete, nor for fear of Islam which confuses Islamism and Islamic. We cannot deny the link between terrorist acts and a fundamental interpretation of a certain form of Islam," he said.

Engagement with the region has been a priority for Mr Macron who wants to reap the benefits of a more open French economy by growing strategic, trade, culture and defence links. The crisis over Qatar’s ties to extremism and harbouring of known terrorists prompted Mr Macron to appoint Jean-Yves Le Drian as an envoy to assist Kuwait’s mediation in the crisis.

"It is necessary for us to talk to all parties involved with two objectives in mind -preserve the necessary stability of the region, to refrain from adding a new crisis to the existing one," he observed. "We should not be oblivious to what has been done and to what is still being done in relation to terrorist groups we are combatting in the field."

The French president has also signalled he would take an active role in the Middle East peace process, including a visit to Jerusalem in the spring.

"We will continue our efforts with the United Nations to find a two-state solution, Israel and Palestine, living safely side-by-side within borders recognised by the international community, with Jerusalem at the capital of both states," he said.

For good measure, Paris will launch an initiative to promote development in Africa, as the centrepiece of his efforts to reduce migrant flows.

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Just over 100 days into his presidency, Mr Macron has already made dramatic gestures to raise the profile of France. Most notably he invited Vladimir Putin to take part in a lavishly ceremonial visit at Versailles, the playground of the French kings. Claiming credit for the visit, he noted that Syrian violations of France’s red line on the use of chemical weapons by the regime had ceased in its wake. But France also put to one side its demands that President Bashar al-Assad must step down. Now it plans to launch a new contact group on Syria with a meeting at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York next month.

Weeks after Mr Putin’s trip, the new leader used the Bastille Day celebrations to host Donald Trump on a remarkably trouble-free visit to France. However despite the display of warmth, Mr Macron did not succeed in the cajoling the US leader to reverse America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate change accord.

Even so the visit served its purpose to put all on notice that France was back at the global top table. “What is most striking in the first months of his presidency is his desire to break taboos, to provoke in a constructive way, and to create a balance of power in a fairly intelligent way. This has been seen with the meetings with Putin, Trump and Netanyahu, but also more recently by stigmatising the behaviour of the Polish government in a much more direct way than is usually the case,” said Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique in Paris.

The 39-year-old also said he would announce new initiatives on the future of the European Union after German elections next month, including the launch of citizen conventions to plot a way forward.

The British decision to leave the EU was portrayed as an opportunity to attract sovereign wealth funds, finance and engineering business.

"I would rather build the future than go over the past," Macron told his diplomats, adding "Brexit should not take up all our energy.”

The French leader has slumped to unprecedented lows in opinion polls for a new leader. In a relaunch of his domestic team, he appointed a journalist with over 70,000 Twitter followers as a spokesman. Bruno Roger-Petit deleted his account but has a track record of handing out strident advice to Mr Macron. “Why Macron must absolutely abandon Jupiter,” was one example in June as berated the president for setting out to rule like a Roman god handing down edicts.

Foreign policy experts expect Mr Macron to play a high profile role across the region, not least when the Louvre Museum in Abu Dhabi opens later this year.

“The GCC’s feud has also offered Macron an opportunity early on in his presidency to assert France as a go-to superpower for Arab states seeking diplomatic backchannels with the aim of resolving multifaceted crises in the region,” wrote Giorgio Cafiero, the head of Gulf State Analytics.