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After Biarritz – Macron Is Back on the International Scene

BLOG - 2 September 2019

Why did Vladimir Putin agree to go to Brégançon on August 19, at the risk of highlighting his exclusion from the G7 summit, scheduled a few days later? Why did Donald Trump, who hates this kind of political exercise, decide to go to Biarritz, and not to make any trouble there, unlike what had happened in the previous two G7s? And all of this, at a time when the French mediation with Iran, which was to culminate in Biarritz, was naturally displeasing to the American administration?
 
Some circumstances can answer these questions. The Russian President is facing demonstrations in Moscow - and only in Moscow, not in other major cities - on a scale comparable to that of 2011-2012. His popularity rating is declining. He also knows that Emmanuel Macron emerged from the European elections in June, however paradoxically, as the only leader still standing in Europe. As for Donald Trump, perhaps he finally realized that it would not be pointless for him to have allies as he enters a new phase of aggressive trade negotiations with China. He must also keep the G7 alive since he will preside over it in 2020, in the middle of the presidential campaign, and he probably intends to use "his summit" of the major industrialized democracies as part of his campaign.
 
Without excluding these and other similar explanations, the main reason for France's renewed international prestige at the hot end of summer 2019 is mainly due to President Macron's personal talent. It is probably not necessary to insist on advertising it, as this would risk encouraging the President to forget that, at the end of the day, if it is up to the head of state in the Vth Republic to conduct foreign policy, the accuracy of his choices and the support for his action also depend on the quality of the State apparatus's work.
 
The personal factor has always been an important factor in international relations at the highest level. History would have taken a different course if Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin had not been in command of their respective countries against Hitler (and if de Gaulle had not been de Gaulle). More recently, the peaceful nature of the collapse of the USSR owes much to the personality of Gorbachev, Reagan, Bush senior, Kohl - let us add Jim Baker, Hans Genscher and to be complete Eduard Shevardnadze, François Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher.

It so happens that in this second decade of the 21st century, the personal factor plays more than ever a major role in international "big politics". For the following reason: with the rise of resilient (Xi Jinping's China) or resurgent (Vladimir Putin's Russia) authoritarians as well as national-populists of all stripes (the list is long: Erdogan, Orbán, Bolsonaro, Modi, Salvini, etc..), the great manoeuvres of states or the struggle of the people do not attract the light any longer, but so does instead the brilliance of "strong men", regardless of the political horizon from which they come.
 
It is still too early – to speak in the diplomats’ lingo - to know if Emmanuel Macron belongs to the club of great men like Bush I, Gorbachev, Kohl, etc. In any case, he certainly understands fully the personal dimension of international politics. He also gives the impression of having unparalleled expertise in handling strong personalities. His populist opponents readily stigmatize his past as an investment banker. However, the current world being as it is, the experience of having had to manage - for example, for a given merger and acquisition operation - large narcissistic, irascible, poorly behaved but powerful clients, is not useless.
 

The reality is that the summit's bottom line appears to be mixed.

Emmanuel Macron, here again, proceeds as an investment banker or simply as a man of action, through trial and error. He obviously learned from Trump's dissatisfaction at the November 11 anniversary ceremonies in Paris last year.

This time, he found the right attitude, starting with a spontaneous lunch for two on the first day of the summit - around a caramelized Bigorre pig, and to the great fury of the American President's entourage. It cannot be excluded that the Frenchman's charm offensive towards Putin in the days preceding the summit also contributed to Trump's benevolence towards Macron.
 
The two men are on opposite sides when it comes to climate change or other major global governance issues, but they seem, though not visibly enough, to share two fundamental priorities: the desire to balance Chinese power, and the desire to reintegrate Putin's Russia into a constructive game. On the second point, hopefully, Macron will more hindsight than Trump.

Let’s add to the list the communication skills of the President of the Republic, which have equally been clearly refined by experience, as evidenced by his repeated reminder of the need to be "modest". The codes of our hectic media age were fully respected: impromptu lunch, an argument with Bolsonaro, a free debate on Russia at the first dinner, an agreement (albeit a very vague one) on Iran, a short consensus statement when it had been announced that there would be no final communiqué, high-calibre guests ranging from Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Modi, Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, the Rwandan President, the Chilean President, and others, all this to end with one last particularly bold surprise, the appearance (behind the scenes) of the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mr. Zarif.
 
As the lights fade out, or as the Biarritz lighthouse returned to its usual destination (what a brilliant idea to use the metaphor of the lighthouse), three questions remain, which closely overlap: what are the real advances of this summit? To what extent is Biarritz fireworks part of a longer-term French strategy? What is the relationship between the French President’s "great foreign policy" and his vision for Europe?
 
The Guardian published a brilliant and ironic article on the weak content of the Biarritz summit, whose delightfully beautiful setting would illustrate a declining Western world, performing the rituals of its past power one last time. The next G7 will in all likelihood be de facto co-chaired by Trump and Putin in some of the US President's golf clubs. The division of the Western camp, so cleverly concealed by the French President, will appear in all its nakedness. Similarly, the major American newspapers insist either on the fundamental isolation of Trump in Biarritz, or on the contrary, on the fact that the summit was in no way hindered in its fundamentals: trade issues were not much discussed, it did not deal with climate change, the theme announced by the French Presidency, that of reducing inequalities, has apparently fallen through the cracks, and the central issue of the predictable global recession has not been the subject of any significant position taken by the seven.
 
The reality is that the summit's bottom line appears to be mixed. It is true that a number of major economic issues, at the heart of the vocation of this forum as conceived by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, have not been the subjects of any real coordination. However, in passing, the French Presidency brilliantly overcame the conflict that was beginning with Washington on the taxation of GAFAs and obtained that this major theme would be the object of rapid negotiation within the OECD. As was the case at previous summits, commitments were made on the Sahel partnership, women's entrepreneurship, maritime transport, pollution in the textile industry and gender inequality, at least with some G7 members.


If we look at things from a slightly higher perspective, three striking political results characterize the Biarritz meeting, in which once again we find Emmanuel Macron's personal mark.

  • PROGRESS IN FRENCH MEDIATION ON IRAN

The contacts that the French President and his collaborators have multiplied with Tehran and Washington over the past few weeks (Mr. Zarif was received by Mr. Macron in Paris on the eve of the summit) have allowed favourable conditions under which a Trump-Rouhani meeting becomes possible in New York at the end of the month on the occasion of the United Nations General Assembly.
 
The presidential advisers are rightly very discreet and very cautious. It seems difficult for Rouhani to take the step of a meeting without minimal easing of American sanctions. Many other practical issues of this kind remain outstanding. What seems central is that Emmanuel Macron has understood that Mr. Trump wants to resume the discussion with Iran at one time or another: with Biarritz, this wish has somehow been made official. We can bet that the Iranians will also be forced to make a move. The role of Macronian diplomacy, in the first instance, is to ensure that both sides can move without either side losing face. If a "photo-opportunity" is indeed to take place in New York (Mr. Rohani's initial reactions are mixed), a huge amount of groundwork will have to be done, which French diplomacy could find a way to lead.

  • PRESERVATION OF A MULTILATERAL APPROACH

The result seems limited on this point, although it should be remembered that, a year ago, the mere feasibility of a G7 summit was uncertain.
 
However, in this year 2019, as in previous years, the arrival of a number of leaders such as Mr Modi, Mr Kagamé, Mr Piñera, Mr Sissi, Mr Sall or Mr Kaboré, the concrete projects that have been launched or discussed, the staging of the Amazon fires affair - which has made it possible to force Trump to make common cause with his peers on a vital aspect of climate change management - all this shows that multilateral cooperation remains relevant. This Biarritz summit, so-called out-dated, has yet caused the whole planet to talk.
 
From then on, it is possible that the G7 will not survive its 2020 edition and that Donald Trump will explode this specific "format". It is not excluded that the American President may nevertheless find sufficient interest in the exercise to ensure its sustainability. Nor can we completely rule out the possibility that a Democrat will succeed the current tenant of the White House in 2021. In this case, Macronian diplomacy, on the same line as that of the other G7 members, will have had the merit of getting the summit through difficult times and of preserving a forum that constitutes one of the cogs of the delicate mechanics of international cooperation and that is all the more important at a time when this mechanism is largely blocked or subjected to very strong pressures.

  • STARTING TO ADDRESS THE RUSSIAN ISSUE

French commentators placed great emphasis on President Macron's explicit support to a dominant theme in the French establishment, shared by many, from Nicolas Sarkozy to Philippe de Villiers, Hubert Védrine, Dominique de Villepin, Jean-Pierre Chevènement etc.
 
According to this theme, Europe has made a strategic mistake by allowing Russia to move away, and to persist in this mistake would amount to pushing Russia into China's arms. Moreover, Russia would be at the heart of most of the crises - Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Ukraine – which would be impossible to resolve without it. Hubert Védrine is outraged that we have worse relations with today's Russia than with the USSR at the end of the Cold War: he does not draw the conclusion that the last Soviet leaders may have had more consideration, or at least more interest, in Europe than the current head of the Kremlin, but that the burden of proof lies with Europeans. What levers do democracies have at their disposal to send signs of reconciliation to a country that still holds Ukrainian sailors, supports the separatists in Ukraine, which it has amputated of part of its territory, lightly bombards civilian populations in Syria, and has more or less reduced the United Nations Security Council to impotence?
 
Russia's return to the Council of Europe in the spring was one of these signals of reconciliation. A more spectacular gesture would be its reintegration into the G7, which would become the G8 again. It happens to be Mr. Trump's wish anyway. Mr Macron cannot be blamed for having conducted a round table discussion on the issue in Biarritz: only the Italian President of the Council supported Donald Trump's position. Emmanuel Macron got away with one of these summary motions, which is the eternal charm of the most classic diplomacy: Russia's candidacy could be reconsidered if progress is made on the Ukrainian file (in one of his press conferences, he also mentioned the need for progress on the Skripal case, probably under pressure from the British delegation). A summit in the so-called "Normandy" format (Germany, France, Russia, Ukraine) will be organised very soon. It will be an important test.
 
This will not prevent President Trump from inviting Putin to next year's summit of the major industrialized democracies - but as a guest and not as a member of the group. A proper reintegration, according to Emmanuel Macron's thesis, requires a change in Moscow's behaviour, at least on the Ukrainian case.
 
French commentators have glossed over what they see as a turning point in Macronian diplomacy. Some have been struck by the fact that, on several occasions, notably during his speech to the Conference of Ambassadors, in the great Festival Hall of the Elysée Palace, the President warned what he called the "deep state" against the usual out-of-season caution, particularly on this Russian subject. It is quite common under the Fifth Republic for the President of the Republic to show impatience in the face of "resistance" from the services (even if these are less formidable than overzealous zeal from the same services). Does Mr. Macron share the illusion of those who believe that simply "talking to the Russians" is enough for them to be cooperative? The fact is that, so far, his approach has been more cautious: he has made some symbolic gestures. He is ready to make others (travel to Moscow next year for the 75th anniversary of the victory in the Second World War). However, he expects concrete measures from Russia on Ukraine before going any further.

The strategic idea he put forward to the ambassadors was that we should at least try to offer Russia an alternative to falling into China's orbit. It would then be up to the Russian leaders to choose. It is not certain that such a message will be heard in the Kremlin. Some Russian commentators have also denounced the "carrot" of a return to the G8 as a trap: according to them, this would amount to re-legitimize a dying "liberal" forum and Russia would naturally have a high entry price to pay. In any case, President Macron's argument is that it "deserves to be tried".

Some Russian commentators have also denounced the "carrot" of a return to the G8 as a trap: according to them, this would amount to re-legitimize a dying "liberal" forum and Russia would naturally have a high entry price to pay.

Let us not reduce Macron's foreign policy approach to pure pragmatism or even pure opportunism. This President is never completely where he has given the impression of positioning himself. In the same speech to the ambassadors, his development on Russia, apparently intended to call his audience to realism, was preceded by a development on human rights and the challenge of preventing the world's "wildering" (an expression he has used three times). He placed the "Russian question" in a double context:

  • on the one hand, as noted, China's rise to power. Here again, it would be schematic to retain from the presidential analysis only its adherence to the thesis (called "anti-Chinese") of the "indopacific axis". In fact, the President noted that it was necessary to be able to maintain a network of alliances on the Indo-Pacific axis in order to have assets vis-à-vis Beijing. He also mentioned the importance of a strategy of engagement with China based on reciprocity and cooperation.
     
  • On the other hand, the President has taken up the expression that emerging powers are "civilization states". Where, in Brégançon, he had exalted the "Russia of the Enlightenment" (soliciting much history), in the Elysée festival hall, he recalled that Mr Putin's Russia had an "orthodox project" as well as Mr Orban's Hungary a "Catholic project". He regretted that Europe no longer seemed capable of opposing these projects with a "humanist inspiration" that only it - and not the United States - could project on the vast world stage. 

Thus, Macron the European did not disappear behind the successes - perhaps ephemeral - of the great globalist president. One can only rejoice at Emmanuel Macron's return to the world scene since it gives a new sparkle to France's influence. However, the President is probably more aware than anyone else that it is first and foremost in the European theatre that our destiny - and that of his presidency - is at stake. He has set milestones in this field since the European elections, in particular with the appointment of a President of the Commission who owes him a great deal. We must hope that France’s renewed global prestige will work in its favour for the next major European manoeuvres.

 

Copyright : Ian LANGSDON / POOL / AF

 

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