In last June, the elite Cercle de l’Union Interalliee, next to the Elysee Palace in France, celebrated its centenary with an elegant commemoration of the Franco-Anglo-American alliance in the First World War. During the fanfares and drum rolls, amidst full beribboned uniforms, black ties and ball gowns, the atmosphere was nostalgically reminiscent of the heady days of a western coalition, in disarray in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election. Gone are the world spanning colonial empires and hegemonic armies, as the fear of terrorism and of rising powers in the East are present in all minds.
The glittering do was an echo of President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to return its lustre to French diplomacy and foreign policy in a renovated Euro-American compact. Significantly, no German official was featured in the military ceremony, even though the continent’s dominant power looms large. Following decades of steadily diminishing Gallic leadership and influence, the new French Head of State is committed to instilling new confidence and assertiveness to a country ailing from a succession of incapable Presidents. His youth, poise and intellectual sharpness are assets, as his former patrons and friends at the Rothschild bank had reportedly assured then-President Francois Hollande before he inducted the young investment banker in his Cabinet, but he faces formidable challenges and he already appears that his relative inexperience conjoined with his tendency to be glib and peremptory may have the better of him.
Macron’s debut was impressive and reflected his outspoken conviction that France needs a strong leader in the monarchical tradition. Indeed he wrote a few years ago that the state has yet not recovered from the violent end of the royal dispensation. Not only is he a keen student of history and philosophy, who admires Louis XIV, Napoleon and other “Olympian” rulers; he has also watched closely contemporary heads of state and, although he won’t admit to it, has concluded years ago that Vladimir Putin is by far the most successful and respected national potentate while the failures of smooth talking but weak and media-courting politicians like Barack Obama and Hollande are apparent to all. Macron probably agrees with political scientist Saskia Sassen’s assessment that liberal democracy is collapsing worldwide because parliamentary impotence and squabbling prevent addressing existential long-term problems when institutions are not effectively marshalled by a strong and respected figure standing above parties, like De Gaulle in France or FDR in the United States.
Indeed only an almost unchallenged leader can push through many reforms that are needed, but have been systematically blocked by organised interest groups and mighty trade unions. Macron won control of Parliament through his Ad Hoc En Marche party, which gained an astonishing majority based on his personal appeal, as a majority of its candidates were largely unknown, but he will have to face the powerful “French Street” as soon as summer vacations are over. The economic situation is not about to reverse significantly its long-lasting decline. All over the Eurozone, the job market is shrinking, unregulated immigration from poor and troubled regions of Africa and Asia steadily ebbs on and the living standards of middle classes are falling, even in Germany which under Merkel’s stewardship has accumulated huge trade surpluses, mostly at the expense of its EU partners, while lowering domestic salaries and social benefits. One notices the French malaise in the often delayed train traffic, bedevilled by numerous alerts and strikes and even in the armed forces where the Chief of Staff, General de Villiers recently resigned to protest major cuts in the budget. Macron’s public dressing down of the General after his statement led the latter to fall on his sword, but the President’s reputation suffered while suspicions grew that he aspires to assume dictatorial powers.
The contradictions and self-destructive processes within the European Union are becoming unmanageable, as most people admit on the continent. The new book by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz only confirms what another Nobel Laureate (in 1988), the late Maurice Allais predicted at its outset. The euro undermines and impoverishes the countries that have adopted it, while the common bloc policies prevent an effective handling of the migrant crisis, itself triggered by the disastrous initiatives of some NATO leading member states in West Asia and Africa. The nations that remained outside the Eurozone on the continent: Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Poland, Hungary et al are all doing far better and so did Britain, at least as long as it did not vote to get out of the Union altogether. Many top German economists and Central bankers agree even though their country so far has been the biggest beneficiary in comparison, but once the easy money policies are replaced by fiscal austerity, mass unemployment and shrinking consumption become facts of life, especially in the more fragile Southern European countries.
Will Macron be able to reverse that trend without taking France out of the euro or at least changing drastically the structure of the EU? It seems unlikely, if not impossible. So far Paris and Berlin have avoided a direct confrontation over the ticklish issues of austerity and opening up the well heeled German pension funds for public investments in employment-generating French infrastructure projects and SMEs. Any “Make in France” policies will collide head on with the Union’s rules against national protectionism and against its globalist free trade philosophy. Internationally, Macron already has a bittersweet record with the mercurial Trump from whom he had trouble hiding ironic sneers. He has drawn blood with Teresa May’s government as he reportedly wishes to take advantage of the Brexit negotiations in order to weaken the City of London to the benefit of Paris’ financial centre. His sharp rejection of the Italian call for help on the refugees issue has not endeared him to Rome. Towards Russia, Macron has been ambiguous. Privately he is said to have assured Vladimir Putin in Versailles that he wants to repair relations and cooperate with the Kremlin for resolving the crises in Syria and Ukraine, but publicly he stated a different position, much closer to the American and British attitudes which enlightened the Russians about the French President’s studied Machiavellism.
In Syria, Macron has turned his back on the wrongheaded stance of his predecessor committed to setting up a new regime in Syria after helping overthrow Bashar al Assad. Following the American-Saudi-Qatari disengagement in the country, France is now keeping a hands-off attitude and watching the collapse of its once-favoured jihadi rebels and the gradual reassertion of authority by the “dictator-who-gasses-his-own-people-and-cannot-remain-in-power…” etc.
The biggest surprise may be in store for Iran, where Macron is said to plan an official visit in the coming months, breaking with US policy and thumbing his nose at Israel. Iran is becoming a major client for French power, construction and aircraft companies and it would be foolish to keep ostracising it merely to please the US-Israeli lobby.
The sum of Macron’s foreign policy can leave France relatively isolated between geopolitical blocs, as it was in some way when De Gaulle and Pompidou were at the helm and promoted a vision of independence, strategic autonomy and sovereignty. At that time, however, the nation, then one of the real Big 5 in the world, was dominant in a fledgling six-member Common Market and could usually carry along Germany, Italy and the BENELUX (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg) countries. The earth is a very different planet now and there is no assurance that, despite his bravado, the current French President will be able to regain such a privileged place in the comity of nations.