Sunday 19 January 2020

'Macronmania' spreads beyond France as young president puts Trump and Putin on back foot

French President Emmanuel Macron.
French President Emmanuel Macron.

Mary Fitzgerald

Less than a month into office, French President Emmanuel Macron is fast becoming the world's anti-Trump.

Not only are the two men separated by a 31-year age difference - Mr Macron, at 39, is France's youngest president ever - but they share little in terms of worldview.

Mr Macron's election campaign was marked by sunny optimism and a youthful, open-minded approach that was unapologetically European but also global in perspective.

Those who may have considered him naïve before have noted the steely side he has revealed in presidential encounters with Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, one that belies his relative inexperience (Mr Macron never held elected office before becoming president).

In France, they speak of "Macronitis" and "Macron-mania" when discussing Mr Macron's high ratings just weeks into his presidency.

Some talk breathlessly of national morale - always an anguished topic in France - being higher than it has been for a decade. Polls suggest a landslide for Mr Macron's political movement - created only last year - in legislative elections due to take place later this month.

But the rest of the world is also sitting up and taking notice of the new resident of the Elysée Palace, not least because of his willingness to publicly challenge Mr Trump and his fellow travellers like Mr Putin in ways designed to reach audiences far beyond France.

The latest example was this week after Mr Trump announced the US would pull out of the historic Paris climate agreement. In a televised address from the Elysée that was also distributed widely on social media, Mr Macron did not mince his words.

Starting off in French, he effortlessly switched to English to deliver a stinging three-minute reprimand on what he described as Mr Trump's "error for the interests of his country, his people and a mistake for the future of our planet".

"Don't be mistaken on climate; there is no plan B because there is no planet B," said the president.

As observers noted, this was the first time a French president had spoken to the country and the world in English from the Elysée.

Mr Macron urged American scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and committed citizens to "find in France a second homeland" where they can "work together on concrete solutions for our climate".

He concluded with a play on the words of Mr Trump's campaign slogan, calling on the world to "Make our planet great again" despite US withdrawal from the Paris deal.

Mr Macron's social media accounts - tellingly, he has one in French and one in English - pushed that reworked slogan, gathering hundreds of thousands of retweets and 'likes' within hours on Twitter.

The speech came days after Mr Macron used a press conference with Mr Putin to not only threaten military action against Mr Putin's ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he uses chemical weapons again, but also to denounce Kremlin-funded media outlets Russia Today and Sputnik as "lying organs of propaganda" as the Russian president shifted uneasily beside him.

US Republican strategist Ana Navarro - a well-known critic of Mr Trump - was impressed, tweeting: "Imagine a courageous, intellectually curious, unifying, serious, truth-telling leader…Yes, Macron has me suffering Acute President Envy."

Mr Macron showed himself to be a maverick during his election campaign, breaking the rules of France's fusty politics by forming his own movement as an underdog candidate few initially took seriously.

He has shown himself to be savvy when it comes to new forms of political messaging - his adroit use of social media is unusual for a French politician.

Hailing Canadian leader Justin Trudeau as something of a kindred spirit when they met recently at the G7 summit in Italy, Mr Macron spoke of a generational shift.

"We belong to a generation of leaders that will deeply renew practices and a vision of global affairs," he said.

But while Mr Macron strides the world stage, gathering plaudits for his global vision at a time when so many other leaders are leaning in the opposite direction, at home in France he faces an array of challenges. The new president inherits a divided country, with some 11 million having voted for his main rival for the Elysée, Marine Le Pen of the far-right Front National.

The economy continues to stall and unemployment, particularly among the young, has soared.

Mr Macron has to figure out how to implement badly needed reforms in the face of France's powerful unions while not alienating those - particularly on the left - who voted for him only to keep Ms Le Pen out.

For now, the Mr Macron honeymoon holds and it seems that he can do little wrong at home or abroad for those anxious that Mr Trump's election and Brexit spelled the end of a more liberal, globalised politics rooted in the post-war order.

How long he can maintain such momentum in his five-year presidency remains to be seen.

Irish Independent

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