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President Macron’s Balancing Act

Lecture at the Princeton Committee of FPRI - 26 octobre, 2017
Seminar and conference
Hajnalka Vincze

"For the next five years, on the domestic front, the main challenge will be the feeling of alienation of a large majority of the French population. This comes both from the divide between globalization’s winners and losers, and from what is widely perceived as an increasingly assertive presence of Islam. On the European front, there is an unprecedented window of opportunity for the protective, strategic, autonomous EU project France has always advocated, but the key to achieve this still resides in the implementation of the multispeed model."


Two weeks ago, President Macron gave a long interview to the German weekly Der Spiegel, and his picture was on the cover with two quotes from him. “I am not arrogant” and “I say and I do what I want to”… As it happens, it was a great interview, and the French President displayed impressive vision, determination, erudition and sense of humor in it. Still, it brings to mind a remark Italian novelist Umberto Eco made in one of his essays, which seems now as if it was tailor-made for France’s new Head of State. Eco said: “For me, French arrogance is the kind that I love best in the entire world. If one has to have arrogance, then, at least let it be French; this is stylistically the greatest thing which the European mind is able to produce”.

True to this definition, as if he was actually the embodiment of it, Emmanuel Macron came to power proposing nothing less than “transforming France” and “re-founding Europe”. (And, incidentally, as it turns out, saving the planet too).

On each of the various topics, Macron manifestly attempts to perform a genuine balancing act. In fact, during the campaign, he maintained a certain amount of ambiguity on sensitive policy issues. So much so, that his constantly repeated “but at the same time” expression has basically become his trademark. Once in power, decisions need to be made, and there is less and less room for ambiguity.

Starting with his personal presidential style, where he tries to reconcile, with mixed results so far, a majestic and an outspoken image. On the domestic front, he intends to strike a fair balance between liberalization and social protection. In foreign policy, he faces the habitual dilemma between principles and Realpolitik. In the EU, it is all about how to pursue a European ambition while accommodating national interests. Not only France’s, but also that of its partners.

All in all, there is quite a lot of balancing to be done.

Old-New Presidential Style

Three years ago Emmanuel Macron was unknown to French people and analysts alike – so everyone is discovering him along the way, and this discovery is not without surprises. During the campaign, he had the image of someone “cool”, jovial, encouraging teamwork and wide participation. Once elected President, he became a self-proclaimed Jupiter: distant and majestic, just as the Roman king of the gods. He received lots of criticism from his original admirers, who saw this as a betrayal and attributed his plummeting in the polls over the summer to this change in attitude. That might not be that simple.

Rather, his intuition about the “Jupiterian” presidency was right. He wanted to distance himself from his immediate predecessors who desecrated the presidential function, and were indeed ridiculed for it. He realized that the French people needs what is often referred to as a democratically elected monarch. This is, by the way, what the whole 5th Republic, founded by General De Gaulle, is about.

Macron’s problem is twofold. This highly presidential posture is intertwined with a completely different communication strategy and with occasional personal outbursts that also contradict it. His communication strategy was based on images on Twitter displaying various obviously staged PR scenes (Macron playing tennis in a wheelchair, Macron with boxing gloves, Macron picking up citizens’ phone calls, Macron landing from a helicopter on a nuclear submarine, Macron in a football T-shirt or in a pilot uniform).

His presidential figure would also be blurred by his own personal behavior. He unnecessarily humiliated his most senior military officer (who later resigned) and repeated to the military that “I am your boss.” He also had disdainful remarks toward the workers and the poor, saying things like “slackers” about opponents to his reforms, and talked about “those who are successful and those who are nothing.” This kind of outbursts were all the more unfortunate that they tend to reinforce his image as a spoiled President of the so-called “elites”, without any empathy.

Transforming France

On the domestic front, President Macron is committed to what he calls the “transformation” of France, as opposed to simple reforms. The title of his book is actually: Revolution. The one field where transformation is definitely well underway already, is the political landscape. After Macron accomplished what former President Sarkozy reportedly called a political bank robbery, the whole traditional party structure is undergoing a complete re-configuration. The two mainstream, left and right, parties are in shambles and/or in complete soul-searching mode. The far-left and the far-right parties are largely discredited by the personality of their leaders: the first one, Jean-Luc Mélenchon is seen as bad-tempered and still bitterly trying to digest his electoral defeat. The second, Marine Le Pen, is seen as incompetent after her very poor performance during the presidential debate.

The main battlefield for Macron’s transformational endeavor is the economic-social field. His goal is to make France more open, competitive, liberalized, hoping that this would also put an end to persistently high unemployment. The whole needs to be done against the backdrop of a deepening divide between the winners and the losers (the "forgotten ones") of globalization. An elite-people opposition that was very sharply brought to the surface during the last presidential election.

To achieve his goal, President Macron wants to strike a delicate balance between two policy lines. He calls them the “liberate” and the “protect” part of his program. “Liberate” is the business-friendly, labor law loosening, tax cutting part, while “protect” is the social justice-motivated, workers and employee-friendly one. Three remarks are in order in this regard.

First, the sequencing of his plan. The problem with his “liberalizing, but at the same time protecting” vision is that they are not happening… at the same time. Which creates an initial imbalance: first come the unpopular, liberalizing measures that, combined with some of his personal comments about “slackers” reinforce his image as “the President of the rich”. Of course, it might change later, but there is a risk: usually early measures and first impressions tend to define French Presidents’ image for their whole mandate.

Second, he enjoys a number of advantages compared to his predecessors. For one, he actually announced everything he is doing now already during his campaign. He is seen therefore as simply sticking to his word. Also, this very same perception makes many people to adopt a wait-and-see attitude: thinking that maybe he is going to stick to the “protecting” part too. All the more so because, and here is another advantage, French economy is now growing, which automatically means more cash in the treasury. Finally, he has overwhelming majority in the National Assembly, and his opposition is in ruins, completely fragmented, and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future.

Third and final remark: economy-related issues are only one of the two main sources of tension in French society. The other one is much more far away from Macron’s natural focus (he’s a former banker and Minister for Economy): it is the package known as France’s identity crisis, which encompasses Islam, immigration, secularism, communitarianism, as well as different approaches to French culture and History.

As a candidate, Emmanuel Macron sent notoriously mixed messages on these subjects, and since he was elected President he has mostly been silent on them. He mostly hopes that improvement in the economic-social context would ease, if not entirely wipe away, these identity-related problems. For the time being, he only insists on two non-negotiable points: antisemitism and gender inequality are not tolerable. Although highly respectable, this is a very modest ambition in a deeply divided society. The overwhelming majority of the population would expect their Muslim compatriots to follow the traditional French “assimilation” path, in which immigrants adopt the culture, history, social codes, “mode de vie” of the host nation. Whereas an increasing portion of French Muslim population not only reject this model, but would like to see Islamic law take precedence over French civil law.

The problem can hardly be overestimated. In the polls, a steady 60% of French people consistently have been saying for years that they “no longer feel at home” in France. One of the most well-known anti-terrorist judges declared that there are territories in France completely outside of State control and law. Former President Hollande said in a series of interviews later published as a book, that France is heading towards a kind of “partition” of the national territory. Sooner or later, President Macron will have to take steps, in one or the other direction.

Foreign Policy under President Macron

Emmanuel Macron is adamant on making full use of his authority over what is considered in France the President’s domaine réservé. This means that foreign and defense policy is his prerogative, traditionally conducted under direct control of the Elysée Palace. Macron’s debuts on the world stage have been a clear success story, from his much-publicized firm handshake with President Trump, to his uncompromising stance on climate change, up to his eloquent first UN speech. Combined with his youth and charm, he has quickly become a sort of wonder-boy of international politics.

He had indicated, even during the campaign, that he wanted to continue what is called the Gaullo-Mitterrandian tradition of French diplomacy (named after Presidents Charles De Gaulle and François Mitterrand), articulated around some basic principles. These are: France’s greatness or grandeur (he is actually not afraid to use the term), independence, an all-around or 360° diplomacy, multilateralism, and a kind of principled Realpolitik.

His starting point is that France is not a medium power but a great power with a global outlook, and has all the assets for it. France is a nuclear power, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, it has a solid technological base, full-spectrum defense capabilities, as well as strategic interests all over the world due to its overseas territories, a global cultural presence and a generally positive image. All this combined, constitutes the basis for a fundamentally and intrinsically independent foreign policy.

Macron explains, again in the footsteps of traditional French diplomacy, that independence allows France to pursue constructive dialogue with everyone, especially those with whom they do not agree, since this is exactly what diplomacy is all about. There are persistent rumors of a possible presidential visit to Russia and maybe to Iran, in the coming months. The President stresses that dialogue does not mean giving up on our principles: both are indispensable.

In his first UN-speech in September - which was generally regarded as the exact opposite of President Trump - he emphasized that the challenge for our generation is to rebuild multilateralism in order to face global challenges and defend common goods. And to make his point, he resorted to his customary lyricism – which might be worth quoting, if only to get a sense of his style. “If we do not stand up for these common goods, we will all be wiped out. We are allowing fires to break out, into which, tomorrow, History will throw our own children”.

There is no denying that what we have seen so far from President Macron is a promising return to the fundamentals of French foreign policy, both in substance and in style. However, we have not seen him in a crisis yet. Also President Trump makes it rather easy to Macron to find a room for manoeuver and appear as the good guy. As one senior French diplomat put it: “After all, 40% of diplomacy is theater, and we have a President who understands that perfectly well. For now, we are still waiting for the other 60%.”

Re-founding Europe

At the center of Macron’s domestic and international agenda is… Europe. His plan is to re-found/re-create Europe, into a Europe that protects (internally) and projects itself (externally), to use his expression. In reality, there is nothing new in his proposals, they are basically a revamped version of what successive French governments have been trying to achieve in the EU for decades. However, he comes up with those ideas at a particular moment, when there is an unprecedented alignment of stars in their favor.

The heart of French policy for Europe can be encompassed in three concepts: protective Europe, autonomous Europe and multispeed Europe. A protective Europe is now blatantly needed, to counter the widespread feeling that the EU is but the conveyor belt for the ill-effects of globalization. Even worsening them, by dismantling national borders and safeguards. A protective Europe would put up external trade barriers when needed, to correct market distortions. It would also ensure internal social-fiscal harmonization so as to raise living standards instead of playing into the hands of the lowest bidder.

An autonomous Europe would be a fully-fledged international actor that could negotiate, this is a recurring theme in Macron’s speeches, on an equal footing with China and the United States. In the French view, negotiating position is about credibility and credibility is about independence. This is why it is so important for Paris to push for a strategically autonomous European defense policy (both institutionally and in the armaments industry).

Finally, there is a deep conviction in French diplomacy, that the only way to achieve these European objectives is through what is generally called a multispeed Europe. Meaning that those who want to go faster or further on various policies must be able to do it, without the others blocking them. Although it is already a reality in some fields (like the Eurozone and Schengen), the concept remains one of the most controversial, passion-filled ones, as we have seen from the reactions to Macron’s recent plans.

The usual oppositions to the French ideas are well and alive. President Macron’s European honeymoon did not last long. As the head of the German Bundesbank put it: “It’s a strange idea that we should make a new offer just because he won the French elections.” Opposition has already been voiced from those who, on the basis of free marketism, are against any kind of protection or financial solidarity; from those who are against a European defense for fear that it could be seen as a rival to NATO; and from those who are against what they see as a division into first and second-class membership. In other words, the usual blockages to a protective, autonomous, multispeed EU.

However, there is also a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity. With Euroscepticism on the rise, there is a strong case for Europe becoming more protective of those populations who tend to massively turn away from it, and even tempted by extremism. With President Trump in the White House, it is also easier to make the case for Europeans taking their fate into their own hand, and not to remain excessively dependent on their biggest ally. Finally, with the prospect of Brexit, the most vocal (but by no means the sole) opponent of protective and autonomous policies is now on the sidelines.

Having said all that, the essential challenge for President Macron on the EU front is, beyond the usual blockages, more general. It is what President Mitterrand called the dilemma of “How to make Europe without un-making France.”


For the next five years, on the domestic front, the main challenge will be the feeling of alienation of a large majority of the French population. This comes both from the divide between globalization’s winners and losers, and from what is widely perceived as an increasingly assertive presence of Islam. On the European front, there is an unprecedented window of opportunity for the protective, strategic, autonomous EU project France has always advocated, but the key to achieve this still resides in the implementation of the multispeed model.

Internal cohesion of the French society, and Europe as a multiplier of French influence would be necessary for what has always been France’s broader objective: promoting a more rule-based, multilateral international system. In which France would be a pivotal player, and Europe would become one of the norm-setting power centers.

Although some of President Macron’s positions are still ambiguous, some of them might still evolve, and some of them are based on (very) risky gambles, one thing is certain. With him, France is definitely "back in the game".

(Hajnalka Vincze, President Macron's balancing act, Lecture at the Princeton Committee of FPRI, 26 October 2017)

To listen to the recording, please click here.

* In 2012, FPRI established a Princeton Committee to bring experts and policymakers in foreign affairs together with individuals who seek a deeper understanding of the complex issues confronting us today. The format for these briefings, to be held in Princeton, is an intimate, salon-like setting in which participants may interact and exchange views with experts to a degree and depth not attainable in public forums. The Princeton Committee is directed by John R. Haines, trustee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


france, ue

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