Emmanuel Macron’s Trumpian transformation

7 November 2020

6:47 AM

7 November 2020

6:47 AM

This new world disorder is distorting our vision, so please excuse an apparently fatuous question. Is Emmanuel Macron turning into Donald Trump? As the 45th President of the US prepares to step down from the world stage he may be leaving behind another disciple – Emmanuel Macron (Trump would say a ‘mini-me’). The comparison is audacious, and their bracketing together would irk both. But Macron appears to be on a trajectory bringing him closer to the politician whose style and substance he has spent much time deriding.

Macron is of course a more intellectual and urbane individual than Trump. But in style and increasingly in substance the resemblance is growing. In manner, from the outset of his presidency we have grown used to Macron, like Trump, publicly chiding national leaders, applying lessons and upbraiding the media, of which Macron’s recent acidic letter to the Financial Times is the most Trumpian. In substance, one also identifies a closing of the philosophical gap – where the ethos is increasingly what is good for America-France is good for everyone. That these two leaders adopt this stance is unsurprising in that the US and France are two western democracies that have long had similar conceptions of their place in the world. They are unembarrassed about presenting themselves as world role models. That can be traced back to their revolutions, in the French case giving birth to the idea of the ‘civilising mission’ and in America’s that of ‘manifest destiny’. This belief that their values are universal and that they have a mission is at the core of their existence domestically and on the world stage. But Macron’s championing of it is stronger than for decades. At the policy level it is morphing into greater emphasis on the nation state.

Though apparently poles apart, the paths to their presidencies have some commonality. Like Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron is not a professional politician. Both came originally from outside the party system. Macron broke the mould, created his own party and won the presidency. Like Trump he had never before been elected to office and had only a couple of years’ service in government. He came to power with intellectual bombast and grand ideas about reforming France and the international system. His triumphs have been few on both counts, while Trump – whatever one may think of the man – has had greater success internationally.

But Macron’s modus operandi is very much in the Trumpian style: brusque, though Macron self-identifies via the language of the start-up as ‘disruptive’. On the international stage his public statements and initiatives appear as bolts from the blue for those on the receiving end: when giving a dressing down to deluded and dangerous populists from Eastern and Central Europe or the UK, creating a French template for greater European integration or even when declaring that NATO is ‘brain dead’.

Initially critical of Trump’s twitter diplomacy Macron has himself joined in, recently tweeting in French, Arabic and English against President Erdogan’s call for a boycott of French goods. Like Trump he is sensitive to criticism of himself and his policies. Macron’s letter to the FT this week, railing against an in-house journalist’s article critical of his policies on secularism and radical Islamists, may have been correct in substance, but not in manner. It came in the same breath as his proclamations of France’s right to freedom of speech and freedom to publish. ‘We can do without media articles that divide us’, went his near-rant. It did the trick. The FT was cowed into removing the article from its website ‘for review’. The episode recalls Donald Trump’s fiery run-ins with the New York Times or CNN.

Unlike Donald Trump, however, the substance of Macron’s politics has undergone a slow transformation towards promotion of the nation state. As his mandate draws to a close with the 2022 presidential election, the early Macron has begun to contradict his late alter ego.

He started as a globalist, a multilateralist, a Europeanist, who scorned those, like Trump or Brexiteers, who sought to defend their nation’s sovereignty and interests. But progressively his discourse and his policies – while wearing the clothes of multilateralism – have in practice promoted the nation state, partly as a result of Covid, partly financial necessity, partly Islamist terrorism. The turn began a year–and-a-half ago, when in a speech to French ambassadors he acknowledged a certain debt to Brexiteers for highlighting the term ‘Take back control’. He badged it as a way forward for Europe against globalism. Now it has ratcheted down a notch to the nation state.

Macron’s retreat into the Trumpian promotion of the nation state continues unabated. Whether it be PPE, repatriating French overseas industry, buying French products, taking French holidays and, little by little, curbing immigration, the nation state and national sovereignty loom ever larger in Macron’s policies. Given that the last two terror attacks were by recent migrants from Chechnya and Tunisia, only yesterday he was at the Franco-Spanish border town of Le Perthus explaining in Schengen shredding mode that France’s borders would be reinforced against illegal immigration and terrorism by doubling border guard numbers to 4,800. How much he must regret the new EU policy requiring member states to take a proportionate share of all immigrants who enter Europe, forcing France to take far more than hitherto.

How long before Macron takes action to neuter the European Court on Human Rights – as even moderate parties are now requesting – which has hamstrung France, ‘as a sovereign nation’ in wishing to deport terrorists? His policies of open EU borders and greater power to Brussels appear increasingly at odds with his new-found role as champion of French national sovereignty and the nation state. If the latter were to continue he would find no greater supporter than Donald Trump.

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