FRENCH PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON – TRUE LEADERSHIP
Emmanuel Macron launched his presidential campaign in 2017 under the En Marche banner. At the age of 39, he became the youngest president in French history receiving 66.1% of the vote compared to Marine Le Pen who received 33.9%. Macron has hardly had a moment of plain sailing since taking office six years ago. He is the only president since Charles de Gaulle who has had to weather so many storms including the Yellow Jackets protests, Covid-19, and terrorism. As soon as the covid pandemic began to subside, Russia started the largest European war since 1945.
To be a French President one needs to propose reforms, but any French president who wants to introduce reforms faces the risk of demonstrations. In January 2020, demonstrators chanted “Louis XVI was decapitated, Macron, we can do it again.” Nevertheless, Macron has been able to push through more economic reforms than any president since de Gaulle.
When Macron arrived, France’s foreign policy changed. He wanted France to be an independent, humanist, European power and for Europe to preserve its “strategic autonomy”. Macron added that it would be dangerous to follow Washington’s belligerent lead over Taiwan, otherwise European states would become no more than US “vassals”. His comments exploded in a paroxysm of rage in the Anglo-American press but recently, there has been an acknowledgement in Europe and elsewhere that what Macron said out loud is usually understood but remains unspoken.
Macron shares a trait with President Obama whose Golden Rule demanded that one must “Stand in somebody else’s shoes and see through their eyes.” It was the same attitude adopted by Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban crisis when he said, “Put yourself in his (Khrushchev’s) shoes-so as to see things through his eyes.” Kennedy talked of keeping cool, having unlimited patience and never cornering an opponent, always allowing them to save face. Kennedy demonstrated all of the qualities expected from a leader. The crisis ended by agreement and compromise. For Macron, diplomatic engagement is key. He avoids demonising China but he is not afraid to criticise Beijing, while, at the same time avoiding unnecessary confrontation.[i]
In 2018, the “Yellow Vests” violent protests followed the announcement of increased taxes on gasoline as well as complaints of economic inequality. When Macron recognised that people were living on the brink of poverty, he cancelled the gasoline price increase. He also announced a significant increase in the minimum wage for workers. In addition, Macron launched the Great National Debate – a two-month long nationwide debate designed to be a participatory democratic exercise open to all citizens. It was a success.
Pension Reforms– Lifting the Retirement Age
Macron made pension reform a pillar of his 2017 election campaign although introducing this reform was delayed until 2022 due to the coronavirus pandemic. He insisted that although increasing the French retirement age from 62 to 64 is unpopular, it is necessary and fiscally responsible. He will not back down. In an address to the nation, he said “Is it a pleasure to do this reform? Could I have swept it under the carpet as others have done before me? This reform is not a luxury or a pleasure, it is necessary for the country.” Macron is prepared to be unpopular, for the greater interest of the nation.[ii]
On 14 April, France’s Constitutional Council gave the green light enabling the reforms to proceed. In the weeks before the decision, hundreds of thousands of French protesters had poured onto the streets, with rioters vandalising buildings and the French police bludgeoning protesters with batons and firing tear gas into the crowds.
Macron’s political opponent, Marine Le Pen immediately predicted that this decision would “mark the final break between the French people and Emmanuel Macron.” Le Pen may be right, but Macron is one of the few leaders in the democratic world willing to put principal, and the interests of the nation ahead of political popularity. In any case, French presidents are limited to a maximum of two five-year terms, leaving Macron with four more years in the top job.
Macron’s ambition is to bolster European autonomy instead of allowing its worldview to be shaped by others. He has called for Europe to act independently from the US over Taiwan saying, “Being an ally does not mean being a vassal”. He previously said, “The worst thing would be to think that we Europeans must be followers and adapt ourselves to the American rhythm and a Chinese overreaction.” The European Council President, Charles Michel remarked, “I think quite a few really think like Emmanuel Macron” even if they don’t say so publicly.[iii]
In 2019, after Macron had learned by a simple tweet of Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria, he warned European countries that they could no longer rely on America to defend NATO allies saying, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.”
After Trump withdrew the US from the Vienna agreement involving the Iranian nuclear issue, Macron moved to the centre of negotiations, wanting to promote dialogue between the US and Iran. His efforts were in vain, but he is not the type of leader who hesitates to take political risks even when he knew that there was a greater chance of failure than success.
European Leaders Meet with Xi Jinping
Biden continues the trade war against China, initiated in 2018 by Donald Trump. However, European leaders are saying that “decoupling” from China is not part of Europe’s foreign policy. Most Europeans recognise that tying their policies to the grand strategy of the US is a non-starter and many doubt the sincerity of their American counterparts in pressuring Europe to cut ties with China especially when US-China trade reached a record high of $690 billion in 2022.[iv]
Macron’s high profile state visit to China in early April, accompanied by 60 French executives and holding discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping, delivered major agreements to expand French business in China. It was a significant development for France’s independent diplomacy and it sent a clear signal to Beijing that economic cooperation remained high on the Paris agenda. Recently, German Chancellor Scholz visited China followed by Spanish Prime Minister, Sanchez, both meeting with Xi, and negotiating business deals for their respective countries. Italian Prime Minister Meloni plans to visit Beijing this May.
The Chinese and American economies are interdependent as is shown by the enormous level of trade which currently takes place between them. The US should engage in healthy competition with China, but such competition does not equal containment. China has no wish to impose its system of government on other nations. The “China Threat” is a myth and must be dismissed. The notion of containment of China must likewise be dismissed.
A Lesson in Leadership
Macron has demonstrated that for him, principle and policy come before political popularity. It is an attitude which contrasts with that of Joe Biden who has followed Donald Trump in perpetuating the China threat, hand in hand with his Republican opponents. His actions are not so different from those of the Australian government led by Prime Minister Albanese who quickly followed the lead of ousted Prime Minister Morrison in signing up to AUKUS for fear of being “wedged” during the lead up to Australia’s 2022 Federal election. By blindly following the US into a war with China (a war which has nothing to do with Australia and is contrary to Australia’s national interests), the Albanese government will leave Australia in the position of a US follower, lackey, and vassal. That is not “leadership”.
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_________________ [i] Macron Unveiled by Alain Lefebvre 2021/23 [ii] The Guardian 23 March 2023 [iii] The Guardian, Macron stands by his remark about US allies "not being vassals", 13 April 2023 [iv] Foreign Policy, Macron said out Loud what Europeans Really Think about China, 14 April 2023