The day before the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos on January 23rd, President Emmanuel Macron hosted a dinner in the Château de Versailles for 1400 international business leaders. Contrary to all his predecessors, he made his presentation in English. No journalists were present and the French employers’ federation was not even represented. "France is back" Macron declared to the best and the brightest of the business world, a phrase he repeated in his speech, half of which was in English too, in Davos two days later.
Many in France, in the media and the political opposition have been quick to pour scorn on Macron’s active political and business diplomacy. The satirical weekly "Le Canard Enchainé" for example, titled its leading article that week: "It’s the reign of the Moi Soleil" (an allusion to Louis XIV, the “Roi Soleil”, who reigned over the court at Versailles at the time of its greatest splendour) assimilating Macron’s gesture to a public relations stunt, mere posturing, of which the French ruling classes have often and rightly been accused. As I have written before in this blog, Macron is certainly not averse to draping himself in all the trappings of state, but in his case there is surely a more serious purpose behind it. It is worth recalling that just eight months into his five-year mandate, Macron has already hosted in Paris, among others, Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recip Tayip Erdogan, been on a state visit to China and participated in a Franco-British summit. Nor can he be accused of simply trying to butter up the world’s most powerful leaders. Making Donald Trump the guest of honour at last year’s Bastille Day parade did not prevent him from denouncing the U.S withdrawl from the Paris climate agreement and inviting American experts to pursue their research on climate change in France if they were prevented from doing so at home. Inviting Vladimir Putin to inaugurate an exhibition, in Versailles, to the glory of imperial Russia did not prevent him, during the ensuing press conference, and in front of a stony-faced Putin, from making it clear that he was under no illusion about the antics of Kremlin financed media during the French presidential campaign. Presenting a horse from the stable of the Republican Guard to Xi Jingping was an elegant way of expressing gratitude for the loan of a Chinese panda to a French zoo and threw an aura of bonhomie over the visit that culminated in the signature of some high-value contracts. And the master stroke of offering to lend the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain in the lead-up to the Franco-British summit undoubtedly facilitated the pledging by Prime Minister May of an extra 50 million Euros for border security on the French coast around Calais.
The conclusion I draw from all this is that Macron is not only skilled at choosing the gesture that will touch and impress his opposite numbers but that his charm offensive, alongside his domestic reform programme, is indeed directed towards putting France back at the core of Europe and the centre of the international stage. He is clearly helped by circumstances: The U.S is becoming more isolationist, Germany is temporarily weakened by its lack of government and the impending end of the Merkel era and the U.K is obsessed by Brexit alone. Henry Kissinger used to ask: "Who should I call when I want to talk to Europe?” The assumption was always that the leader of Germany should be on the other end of the line. If he were to ask the same question today, the answer might well be "Call Macron".
It helps of course that Macron, contrary to his predecessors, speaks creditable English and is not afraid to use it, ignoring the tut-tutting of those in France who consider that their Head of State should always speak French to international audiences. Listening to him answering questions from BBC’s Andrew Marr before the Franco-British summit, I concluded that he doesn’t always get it quite right: “My willingness” repeated several times, does not convey the ambition and determination of “ma volonté" and the oft repeated "for sure" could better be rendered by the more anglo-saxon "clearly" or "obviously". He also has an irritating tendency to drop his voice and slur his words at the end of sentences, something he does not do in his native tongue. But linguistic quibbling aside, his intention is lauded and his message comes across; practice will undoubtedly make perfect.
All that however is surely only half the story. The really big difference with Macron is a clear ambition to project the image of an outward-looking France, rather than one that focuses, as it tends to do too far too much, on its internal quarrels and divisions, a France that wishes, and considers itself able, to carve out a new role for itself in a globalised economy and an interdependent world. The intention has not gone unnoticed. Hardly a day goes by without a French business leader with international experience reporting that foreign partners are favourably impressed by the new image of France that Macron embodies - outward looking, engaging with the rest of the word and not afraid of becoming vigorously involved in its affairs. The French business radio and TV station “BFM Business” has long encapsulated the idea in a slogan to which Macron would undoubtedly subscribe: “France has everything (it needs) to succeed” ("La France a tout pour réusssir”). In his New Year’s address to the French people, the man himself expressed a similar if somewhat loftier sentiment: “France is capable of the exceptional” (“La France est capable de l’exceptionnel”).
Once again, Macron is true to an idea he put forward during his election campaign, that of an open France at the core of Europe and within a globalised world, striving to project its own values, while capitalising on its own assets - and not forgetting its own interests! It is of course too early to tell whether achievement will match ambition, both domestically and internationally. The direction of travel is refreshingly new. The end of his first mandate in 2022 will be an appropriate juncture to look back and take stock.
No later than this week though, Macron will find his diplomatic skills put to the test when he travels to Corsica, long a thorn in the flesh of the centralised state, and where a newly emboldened “nationalist” movement is demanding greater autonomy, and in some quarters even, independence. As Spain has recently found, keeping one’s own country together can often be just as difficult, if not more so, than strutting one’s stuff on the world’s stage.