Horses, Handshakes and Hugs Macron Leads France Back into Diplomatic Limelight

His seemingly never-ending handshake with Donald Trump may have attracted the most attention. But beyond the headlines, French President Emmanuel Macron is changing his country's role in the world.

AP

By in Paris


It was back in November, on Armistice Day in France, the day on which the end of World War I is celebrated, when Vésuve de Brekka trotted up the Champs-Élysées in a steady rain with French President Emmanuel Macron. Not quite two months later, he then accompanied Macron to Beijing, where the nine-year-old gelding ended up in a paddock in a Beijing suburb -- quarantined in conformance with the regulations.

The horse was the gift Macron brought along for his first state visit to China. At the banquet held in his honor, Macron presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with a photograph of the beautiful animal taken in the stalls belonging to the Republican Guard in France.

The anecdote provides a perfect illustration of the young president's foreign policy. Macron isn't afraid of doing the unexpected and he is often impetuous. More than anything, though, every move he makes on the international stage exudes self-confidence -- and has since his very first day in office. His overly long and excessively firm handshake with Donald Trump before practically suffocating him in cordiality during U.S. president's Bastille Day visit to Paris. His cordial golf-cart tour through the gardens at the Palace of Versailles with Russian President Vladimir Putin before blasting Russian propaganda at the subsequent joint press conference. His adoption of the role as chief climate protector along with the motto: Make Our Planet Great Again.

Although he is new to the world of international politics, he wants everyone to take notice. He exploded onto the stage at the beginning of his term -- and it is a principle that he continues to adhere to. He seems to be everywhere at all times, while smaller, carefully dosed gestures are few and far between. Macron has a weakness for grand gestures and pomp, the product of his love of symbolism.

He isn't afraid of physical contact either. He hugs, he pats, he beams. He clutched Trump's arm during the Bastille Day parade and threw his arm around Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz's waist during the latter's recent visit to the Élysée Palace.

And his guests don't seem to be put off by it. Donald Trump called Macron a "great guy" who is "smart" and "strong." Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hardly known for her lyricism, quoted Hermann Hesse after her first meeting with Macron after his election, saying: "A magic dwells in each beginning." Chancellery Chief of Staff Peter Altmaier has gushed that Macron reminds him of the French poet Rimbaud.

Extremely Direct

Since last May, the world has once again been taking notice of France and seems not to be able to get enough of this boyish-looking French leader and the grandeur he surrounds himself with. Within just a few months, Macron has managed to accomplish something his predecessors had been unable to do for decades: Make France look modern again, as a leading European country with a growing sphere of influence. The president has a conspicuous talent for finding the correct tone to reach whoever he is talking to, say his staff. That, they add, gives him the latitude to be extremely direct.

It was not all that long ago that France was seen as a country tightly bound in a corset of sclerotic structures, slowly strangling itself to death. It only landed in the headlines when it was struck by yet another terrorist attack -- or when yet another member of the political class tried to shrug off yet another weighty scandal. Lethargy characterized French domestic policy while its role overseas was anemic at best.

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It is an image that those who came before Macron were unable to change despite embarking on numerous foreign military interventions. Nicolas Sarkozy sought to raise his international profile by intervening in the Libyan conflict while François Hollande bombed Islamic State positions in Iraq and Syria. Both were "terrible mistakes," Macron now says. France's new president prefers dialogue, saying "we'll talk with everybody" -- and he has even sought to establish contact with the Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Macron also intends to be the first top French politician to visit Iran since 1971. And he wants everything to happen as soon and as fast as possible.

Yet despite his seeming impulsiveness, he has received international admiration. "In Macron, France may have found its third transformative president" like Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand, the magazine Foreign Affairs wrote in December. In November, the American newsmagazine Time wrote of the French president: "Although he says he's not seeking to become the leader of the free world, he can sound like he is." The British magazine Economist, meanwhile, chose France as its country of the year. "In 2017, France defied all expectations," the magazine wrote. France is back.

An Equal Partner

In Brussels, long-serving French diplomats suddenly find themselves astonished at the amount of weight their president's words can carry. And in Berlin, it has become clear that German leaders view France as having returned as an equal partner. Evidence can be found in the fact that many of Macron's ideas for bringing Europe closer together, elucidated in a speech delivered at the Sorbonne just after the German election, have found their way into the preliminary coalition agreement recently cobbled together between conservatives and Social Democrats in Berlin. Last Friday, Merkel even flew to Paris to personally update Macron on the progress she has made in finally assembling a government.

Relations with Germany were important to Macron from the very beginning of his tenure. Indeed, that is one reason why he appointed the former French ambassador to Germany, Philippe Étienne, as his chief diplomatic adviser. A friendly 62-year-old with extensive experience in the world of diplomacy, Étienne speaks fluent German, Russian, Serbo-Croatian and Romanian. He also graduated from the École nationale d'administration together with François Hollande. Macron's foreign policy team is made up of 12 advisers, some of them classmates with whom the French president went to university while others worked with him back when Macron was economy minister under Hollande. One of those is Clément Beaune, 35, whose presentations on Europe even when he was still in school were so accomplished that they were widely shared. Beaune remained loyal to Macron throughout the campaign and the French president's proposals for European Union reform were clearly influenced by his adviser. Beaune is humorous, clever and straightforward - a rather rare character trait among diplomats.

In China, Macron landed a diplomatic coup with the gift he brought along, with President Xi Jinping apparently being quite touched by the gesture. Xi had been gushing about the horses in the Republican Guard ever since a visit to Paris in 2014.

Macron promised to visit China every year, saying: "France is and will continue to be the power at the heart of Europe that will lead the dialogue with China," seemingly forgetting that the job has largely fallen to Merkel in recent years. No matter, though. It was the gesture that counted. After all, the sentence is a quote from Charles de Gaulle, who has been highly esteemed in China ever since France became one of the first countries in the world to recognize the People's Republic in 1964.

The visit to China, wrote an Italian newspaper, made Macron the clear leader of Europe. Germany's business daily Handelsblatt promoted him to the position of Europe's chief diplomat.

Macron, of course, is also trying to use his own radiance to benefit France. He has said openly that his country should once again take on a central role in international affairs. "L'influence," France's traditional aim of having a say on the global stage, remains a priority in the Élysée. And even if Macron is younger than his predecessors have been, he has echoed them by insisting he will do all he can to ensure that French soon replaces English as the global lingua franca. But why?

Lack of a Sparring Partner

Attempting to keep an eye on Europe's interests at the same time won't be easy. Particularly when it comes to countries like China. After all, one important focus of such trips is the closing of multi-billion-euro trade deals.

One reason for Macron's currently high profile in the world of international diplomacy, of course, is that he doesn't have much in the way of competition. Trump's volatility holds sway in the United States, the British are cloistering themselves from the outside world and Merkel has very clearly passed the zenith of her powers. In the Western hemisphere, at least, there doesn't appear to be anybody standing in his way. Some, though, believe the lack of a sparring partner could ultimately prove problematic. What, after all, can a single person accomplish on his own?

Bertrand Badie, a professor for international relations at prestigious Sciences Po university, thinks that Macron is too peripatetic. Diplomacy, Badie says, is actually an exercise best performed quietly and discreetly. Successful diplomatic initiatives, he says, are seldom accompanied by a brass band.

"Why does he want to be part of negotiations everywhere, get involved everywhere?" Badie asks. What can the ultimate benefits be of seeking to assuage Trump and keeping Iran on a tight leash while trying to solve the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians at the same time? Macron, Badie says, has thus far produced little more than images -- though, he allows, it is far too early to pass judgment on Macron's foreign policy. Nevertheless, the professor says, it is a typically "French deformation" to want to be involved everywhere at the same time.

And it is true that Macron has his finger in a number of pies at the moment. He has received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, followed a short time later by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, all while facilitating the return of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri from Saudi Arabia. Last summer, he retreated to a castle outside of Paris to negotiate a cease-fire for Libya. But the primary effect of these "peace talks" was that Macron, who emphasizes the importance of multilateralism at every opportunity, managed to seriously irritate some.

Then, at the end of last year, he seemed intent on outdoing even himself. Within just one week, he spent three days traveling through West Africa before continuing on to Algeria and Qatar. He organized his own climate summit, to which he didn't just invite heads of government and state, but also the international charity elite. The project, which has generated plenty of headlines if, thus far, little else, has been christened the One Planet Summit. Just one day later, he hosted a meeting of the group known as the G5 Sahel to discuss joint targets in the fight against terrorism in Africa.

A New Relationship of Equals

Though it is occasionally overdone, the importance of symbolism in foreign policy shouldn't be underestimated. Macron's ambitions could end up having far-reaching consequences, particularly for Europe. His proposals for reforming the EU have been met primarily with deep skepticism in many Eastern European countries, with a government minister from Slovakia even comparing Macron's plans for Europe to climbing Mt. Everest without an oxygen mask. Many other EU member states, however, have reacted positively to Macron's ideas.

The fact that Macron represents a new generation of politicians became clear during his trip through Africa. During a stop in Burkina Faso, which was a French colony until 1960, Macron held a speech before a rather skeptical audience in the capital of Ouagadougou -- and he adopted a highly unusual tone. During the extensive question-and-answer session that followed, a university student asked aggressively how Macron expected people to successfully complete their degrees when the air conditioning was constantly failing due to the poor electrical power supply in the country. The French president listened attentively before delivering a clear answer: "You speak to me like I'm a colonial power, but I don't want to look after electricity in Burkina Faso. That's the job of your president."

The comment earned him a fair amount of criticism, but Macron is not ignoring history. Rather, he hopes to stand for a new relationship of equals. His message is: Let's leave the past behind us and focus on the future.

It is an outlook that has proven popular among the French. Even as his approval ratings plummeted last summer, he has recovered nicely since then. Despite his unpopular reforms to his country's social system, French voters are pleased with the figure Macron has cut on the international stage, with fully 75 percent saying they approve of the way he represents France overseas.

It is the kind of approval rating that neither François Hollande nor Nicolas Sarkozy even came close to during their five years at the helm in France.

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