In the first months of his presidency, France’s Emmanuel Macron has often found himself in the international limelight. But just how effective can he be at promoting his foreign policy vision?
US leader Donald Trump never wanted Emmanuel Macron to win the French presidency but he’s looking pretty chummy with him these days.
“Great conversations with President Emmanuel Macron,” he tweeted after visiting Paris for France’s Bastille Day celebrations in July, “an incredible visit”, “relationship with France stronger than ever”.
In fact, the relationship between Washington and Paris probably is stronger than ever, says Martin Quencez of the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank based in Paris.
“Macron gets on quite well with Trump on a personal level,” he explains. “There’s a bit of ‘are you a winner or are you a loser?’ about Trump, and he sees Macron as a winner. It’s already acknowledged that Macron is the only one in Europe who’s been able to create something with Trump.”
But some question how much these discussions translate into real influence, pointing out that Mr Trump has remained immune to French influence on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and the status of Jerusalem.
And foreign affairs adviser Nicolas Tenzer says there’s a price to pay for dialogue, especially when it comes to complex relationships such as that with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“[Russia] wants to undermine the rule of law, the international order and the very principles of the liberal world. Macron knows this very well, but it’s something he cannot say [because] he wants to continue discussions with Russia. But up to what point is it possible to discuss with Russia? That’s the question I have.”
Martin Quencez agrees that Macron’s influence on the policies of other leaders – even allies – has been limited, if not disappointing, but he says that sort of practical influence is not the real goal.
“I don’t think Macron ever expected to be able to whisper in Trump’s ear – it was more about the grandeur of France, being seen with Trump, being seen with Putin. It may not be worth much in terms of practical policy shifts but it’s worth a lot in terms of being seen as someone who matters.”
President Macron has spoken a lot about the need to boost French influence and standing in the world, and promote European values. And Nicolas Tenzer says that, as a nuclear power with military capacity, France is well equipped to play that role.
“I think Macron has a chance to appear as the leader of the free world. France alone cannot do everything but if we look at his speech to the UN General Assembly, this speech was completely focused on human rights. And it’s very important to understand who Macron wants to be remembered as.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to translate intentions into reality, and nowhere is that more evident than in Europe.
Mr Macron put the EU at the centre of his election campaign and he walked out for his victory speech on election night to the strains of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the official anthem of the EU.
And a few months later, he set out an ambitious and detailed vision for the future of Europe in a key speech at the Sorbonne University, while his German counterpart Angela Merkel was still trying to piece together a governing coalition.
There can be no doubt that Mr Macron would like to restore French leadership at the heart of Europe, and thanks to Brexit and long-running political negotiations in Berlin, he is faced with what looks like an opportunity. The shadow over all of this is that he can’t do much alone.
“I have a doubt as to whether he’ll succeed on [Europe],” says Pierre Lellouche, a former junior minister for Europe, for the right-wing party, Les Republicains.
“Half of the answer is in German hands: for new initiatives, one needs to have full German co-operation… and for the moment they are entirely mobilised by their internal dynamics and by the rebirth of the extreme right.”
In fact, Mr Macron’s biggest tangible success so far may be his intervention in Lebanon’s recent political crisis, travelling to Saudi Arabia for talks and offering Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hariri a way out of the impasse he and his government found themselves in.
But the relationship between France and its former colonies, especially those in Africa, is complicated. Francois de Labarre from the French magazine Match Afrique describes it as “neurotic”, because, he says, “France didn’t really leave after decolonisation”.
Mr De Labarre was one of the journalists who travelled on President Macron’s recent visit to Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
“His plane was full of start-ups, not big conglomerates,” he told me. “The message is that he’s not here to sell weapons or take oil. He’s looking to anglophone countries like Nigeria, where the identity is strong and the young generation has forgotten about the British period. Macron’s dream is that francophone countries become exactly like Nigeria.”
Mr Macron caused uproar in France when he said, on a visit to Algeria during his presidential election campaign, that France had committed “crimes against humanity” during its colonial rule there.
But Rose Ndengue, an African history expert at Diderot University in Paris. says the French president is doing little in terms of concrete action.
“If he really wants change, he needs to talk about French military bases in Africa or why Europe is shifting borders to Africa in its handling of the migration crisis. It’s a kind of soft colonialism.”
Francois de Labarre says Mr Macron was caught out by using the phrase “crimes against humanity” when describing France’s historical actions in Algeria, not just because of the social divisions it provoked back home, he says, but because of the financial consequences. On this recent visit, he softened his language.
Emmanuel Macron has faced criticism from the earliest days of his presidential campaign for appearing to be all things to all people: left and right, urging liberal reforms and more protection, fond of visions but also deeply pragmatic.
And critics like Oliver Faure from the left-wing opposition party Nouvelle Gauche say that the results don’t match the rhetoric. “[His] speeches are always well-crafted. Unfortunately, the results don’t follow… we’re not seeing these theatrics translating directly into results regarding questions of climate change, or Europe.”
Some say it’s simply too soon for concrete results, others that the international status of France is, itself, the goal. Either way, President Macron’s energy in foreign affairs, his international presence and his rhetorical vision have won him a lot of supporters at home.
Whatever the concrete achievements might be over his five-year term, he’s already become a leader that other countries talk about.
And that, for France, is a very big win indeed.