Analyzing President Emmanuel Macron

"Blame it on my youth" sounded like the basis for a limited apology by French president Emmanuel Macron when speaking to the joint meeting of the two chambers of the French parliament, held at the Palace of Versailles on July 9, 2018.  On May 14, 2017, the then 39-year-old Macron was elected president of France, the youngest president in French history, with a 62% approval rating.  He told the parliamentarians at Versailles that fear and envy among voters helped him get elected.  "That's why I stand before you, humble, but resolved."  He did not say luck, the withdrawal of his presidential rival, François Fillon, was probably more important.

Macron is a man of many qualities, but humility is not one of them.  He had apologized earlier on February 18, 2017, obviously for electoral reasons, to an audience in Toulon for his comment that French history in Algeria was a "crime against humanity."  The audience was composed largely of French nationals who had to leave Algeria in 1962.  At Versailles, the now 40-year-old Macron was responding to the reality that his popularity in summer 2018 has dropped and hovers around 40%.  The campaigner who was nicknamed or self-styled the "Jupiter" of the French political universe, and thought of in the manner of Charles de Gaulle, or King Francis I, or the Sun King, now talks of France as a "contractual republic."

The comparison with earlier wielders of power was always strained.  Like King Francis I, President Macron believes in the use of governmental if not royal power, but Macron does not otherwise resemble Francis, the warrior of Marignano and the shrewd art patron.  However, Macron does use as a summer home the former medieval fortress Fort Brégançon, an islet off the Mediterranean coast, the official retreat of the president of France since 1968, previously rarely used.  It was at the fort that Macron was the host of a meeting on August 3, 2018 with Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss Brexit.

In some ways Macron recalls, if with nuance, some aspects of Charles de Gaulle, particularly in emphasizing the role of France in international affairs.  If de Gaulle said, "France cannot be France without grandeur," Macron wants France to be the "center of a new humanistic project for the world."  If de Gaulle insisted that France was one of the Great Powers, fought for France to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a force de frappe, a nuclear deterrent independent of NATO, Macron wants to transform Europe as well as France and revive it by a "new generation of leaders."  Europe is, he holds, "the common destiny of the peoples of our continent."  

Interestingly, both de Gaulle and Macron devised a new political movement.  Supporters of de Gaulle, who was opposed to "the regime of the parties" of the Third Republic, organized the Union for the New Republic (UNR), and Macron founded En Marche (on the move), noticeably a reference to his initials, E.M.  Both parties had unclear objectives, insisting they were neither left nor right, and both became the largest political force.  De Gaulle can be seen as a master of constructive ambiguity, and so can Macron.

Macron, like de Gaulle, audacious, ambitious, and skilled in political theater, using the power of a strong presidency and direct election for the position introduced in 1962, wants "a new momentum in France," as well as the assertion of France as important on the international stage.  Macron has introduced internal changes in a variety of areas: tax policy, cuts in public spending, labor market, SNCF, state-owned railroad, business rules, and higher education.  Technologically oriented, he is eager to change France into a nation that "thinks and moves like a start-up." Internationally, Macron appears to aspire to be a primary figure, if not the leader, in the international democratic world.

Yet the physically short Macron and the tall de Gaulle do not run on parallel tracks.  De Gaulle is still an honored figure, with 3,500 roads in France named after him, as is the Paris airport, aircraft carrier, and the Place Etoile and metro station.  De Gaulle cultivated mystery, kept his distance, often appeared cold and humorless, but with a temper and periods of depression.  Macron is open, gregarious, and eager for multilateral relations.

The two presidents also differ in character.  De Gaulle was personally austere, moderate, and frugal in his habits.  He never owned property, except for a country home, Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, which had no running water for the first two years, and he paid privately the electricity bill at the Elysée Palace while president.  In contrast, Macron, while president, has spent 62,000 euros on hairdressing, spent 26,000 euros on makeup in three months, and ordered 500,000 euros' worth of new dinner plates for the Elysée.

De Gaulle was essentially a private person.  Macron, articulate and open in his opinions, like President Donald Trump, has criticized "fake news," fausses nouvelles.  Macron is a mixer with popular personalities in France as well as notables from other countries.  At the World Cup soccer games, he was with the Belgian king and queen and the president of Croatia, whom he embraced as if part of a loving couple.  He makes his presence known to political figures.  It is memorable that on May 25, 2017, he engaged with President Trump in the world's most intense and competitive of handshakes.  Macron later explained that his challenging behavior was not innocent; "it was a moment of truth."

Macron is passionately pro-European and, to improve the E.U., has proposed controversial changes in the eurozone and a digital tax.  Above all, he is concerned with protecting the sovereignty of the E.U.  On August 3, 2018, Macron hosted Prime Minister Theresa May at a private meeting at Fort Brégançon and took a hard line on the Brexit negotiations.  May received a gourmet five-course dinner but did not soften Macron's position and got no support for the British proposals from Macron, who firmly supports the E.U. negotiators on Brexit.  Beside his adherence to the official E.U. position, Macron is aware that if the U.K. leaves the E.U., Paris will benefit from 3,500 new banking jobs from those obliged to leave London.

Macron embodies the view that France is exerting influence, not sleepwalking.  He is conscious of world developments; in particular, he is aware of the immense population growth in Africa and its poverty, which will increase the number seeking immigration.  He has called for the need for better post-colonial relations with Africa and said France will host an African cultural season a series of events, in France in 2020.

Macron's popularity began falling, especially after two recent blunders.  One, a minor but revealing one, was on June 18, 2018 at a ceremony to commemorate de Gaulle's famous call in London for resistance to the Nazis, voiced exactly 78 years earlier.  He gave a tongue-lashing to a teenager who impolitely addressed him as "Manu" (ça va, Manu?) instead of more formally.  The second was the Benalla affair, the inquiry about the violence used by a presidential security guard at the May 1 rally.  Macron spoke of his responsibility for the handling of the inquiry.  Yet he was silent for more than 36 hours after the incident, and then he referred to it as a "storm in a teacup."

France is still divided on the nature of Macron.  So are President Trump and the rest of the world.  Is Macron a man of the people or representative of the French elite?  Equally uncertain is the direction of his foreign policy.  His ambition is to lead the European democratic world.  Yet, in July 2018, he allowed a Russian military cargo plane to land in France before it flew to the Russian military base in Syria, which has been used to launch attacks in defense of the regime of Bashar Assad.

The question can be asked in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere: by helping Russia's activity in Syria, was Macron sacrificing principle to gain a friendlier relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin?  Is there a crack in the image of the principled fighter for democratic values?

"Blame it on my youth" sounded like the basis for a limited apology by French president Emmanuel Macron when speaking to the joint meeting of the two chambers of the French parliament, held at the Palace of Versailles on July 9, 2018.  On May 14, 2017, the then 39-year-old Macron was elected president of France, the youngest president in French history, with a 62% approval rating.  He told the parliamentarians at Versailles that fear and envy among voters helped him get elected.  "That's why I stand before you, humble, but resolved."  He did not say luck, the withdrawal of his presidential rival, François Fillon, was probably more important.

Macron is a man of many qualities, but humility is not one of them.  He had apologized earlier on February 18, 2017, obviously for electoral reasons, to an audience in Toulon for his comment that French history in Algeria was a "crime against humanity."  The audience was composed largely of French nationals who had to leave Algeria in 1962.  At Versailles, the now 40-year-old Macron was responding to the reality that his popularity in summer 2018 has dropped and hovers around 40%.  The campaigner who was nicknamed or self-styled the "Jupiter" of the French political universe, and thought of in the manner of Charles de Gaulle, or King Francis I, or the Sun King, now talks of France as a "contractual republic."

The comparison with earlier wielders of power was always strained.  Like King Francis I, President Macron believes in the use of governmental if not royal power, but Macron does not otherwise resemble Francis, the warrior of Marignano and the shrewd art patron.  However, Macron does use as a summer home the former medieval fortress Fort Brégançon, an islet off the Mediterranean coast, the official retreat of the president of France since 1968, previously rarely used.  It was at the fort that Macron was the host of a meeting on August 3, 2018 with Prime Minister Theresa May to discuss Brexit.

In some ways Macron recalls, if with nuance, some aspects of Charles de Gaulle, particularly in emphasizing the role of France in international affairs.  If de Gaulle said, "France cannot be France without grandeur," Macron wants France to be the "center of a new humanistic project for the world."  If de Gaulle insisted that France was one of the Great Powers, fought for France to have a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council and a force de frappe, a nuclear deterrent independent of NATO, Macron wants to transform Europe as well as France and revive it by a "new generation of leaders."  Europe is, he holds, "the common destiny of the peoples of our continent."  

Interestingly, both de Gaulle and Macron devised a new political movement.  Supporters of de Gaulle, who was opposed to "the regime of the parties" of the Third Republic, organized the Union for the New Republic (UNR), and Macron founded En Marche (on the move), noticeably a reference to his initials, E.M.  Both parties had unclear objectives, insisting they were neither left nor right, and both became the largest political force.  De Gaulle can be seen as a master of constructive ambiguity, and so can Macron.

Macron, like de Gaulle, audacious, ambitious, and skilled in political theater, using the power of a strong presidency and direct election for the position introduced in 1962, wants "a new momentum in France," as well as the assertion of France as important on the international stage.  Macron has introduced internal changes in a variety of areas: tax policy, cuts in public spending, labor market, SNCF, state-owned railroad, business rules, and higher education.  Technologically oriented, he is eager to change France into a nation that "thinks and moves like a start-up." Internationally, Macron appears to aspire to be a primary figure, if not the leader, in the international democratic world.

Yet the physically short Macron and the tall de Gaulle do not run on parallel tracks.  De Gaulle is still an honored figure, with 3,500 roads in France named after him, as is the Paris airport, aircraft carrier, and the Place Etoile and metro station.  De Gaulle cultivated mystery, kept his distance, often appeared cold and humorless, but with a temper and periods of depression.  Macron is open, gregarious, and eager for multilateral relations.

The two presidents also differ in character.  De Gaulle was personally austere, moderate, and frugal in his habits.  He never owned property, except for a country home, Colombey-les-deux-Eglises, which had no running water for the first two years, and he paid privately the electricity bill at the Elysée Palace while president.  In contrast, Macron, while president, has spent 62,000 euros on hairdressing, spent 26,000 euros on makeup in three months, and ordered 500,000 euros' worth of new dinner plates for the Elysée.

De Gaulle was essentially a private person.  Macron, articulate and open in his opinions, like President Donald Trump, has criticized "fake news," fausses nouvelles.  Macron is a mixer with popular personalities in France as well as notables from other countries.  At the World Cup soccer games, he was with the Belgian king and queen and the president of Croatia, whom he embraced as if part of a loving couple.  He makes his presence known to political figures.  It is memorable that on May 25, 2017, he engaged with President Trump in the world's most intense and competitive of handshakes.  Macron later explained that his challenging behavior was not innocent; "it was a moment of truth."

Macron is passionately pro-European and, to improve the E.U., has proposed controversial changes in the eurozone and a digital tax.  Above all, he is concerned with protecting the sovereignty of the E.U.  On August 3, 2018, Macron hosted Prime Minister Theresa May at a private meeting at Fort Brégançon and took a hard line on the Brexit negotiations.  May received a gourmet five-course dinner but did not soften Macron's position and got no support for the British proposals from Macron, who firmly supports the E.U. negotiators on Brexit.  Beside his adherence to the official E.U. position, Macron is aware that if the U.K. leaves the E.U., Paris will benefit from 3,500 new banking jobs from those obliged to leave London.

Macron embodies the view that France is exerting influence, not sleepwalking.  He is conscious of world developments; in particular, he is aware of the immense population growth in Africa and its poverty, which will increase the number seeking immigration.  He has called for the need for better post-colonial relations with Africa and said France will host an African cultural season a series of events, in France in 2020.

Macron's popularity began falling, especially after two recent blunders.  One, a minor but revealing one, was on June 18, 2018 at a ceremony to commemorate de Gaulle's famous call in London for resistance to the Nazis, voiced exactly 78 years earlier.  He gave a tongue-lashing to a teenager who impolitely addressed him as "Manu" (ça va, Manu?) instead of more formally.  The second was the Benalla affair, the inquiry about the violence used by a presidential security guard at the May 1 rally.  Macron spoke of his responsibility for the handling of the inquiry.  Yet he was silent for more than 36 hours after the incident, and then he referred to it as a "storm in a teacup."

France is still divided on the nature of Macron.  So are President Trump and the rest of the world.  Is Macron a man of the people or representative of the French elite?  Equally uncertain is the direction of his foreign policy.  His ambition is to lead the European democratic world.  Yet, in July 2018, he allowed a Russian military cargo plane to land in France before it flew to the Russian military base in Syria, which has been used to launch attacks in defense of the regime of Bashar Assad.

The question can be asked in Washington, D.C. and elsewhere: by helping Russia's activity in Syria, was Macron sacrificing principle to gain a friendlier relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin?  Is there a crack in the image of the principled fighter for democratic values?