Frenemies? Polarizing Donald Trump vs. The Ruthless Centrism of Emmanuel Macron


WASHINGTON, D.C.—French President Emmanuel Macron, you might say, is everything that U.S. President Donald Trump is not. Macron is young, handsome, personally elegant, and intellectually brilliant. Trump is none of those things. Macron has a clear command of facts, and a deep respect for them. Trump, we are reminded every day, does not. On some issues of enormous global significance—climate change, the Iran nuclear freeze, multilateral trade agreements—they are famously at odds. And where Trump rode to power on a wave of populist, polarizing fear and hate that he did much to create and works daily to nurture, Macron’s strength has been his rational, ruthless centrism.

Yet when the two presidents and their wives dine at Mount Vernon on Monday night, then spend much of Tuesday together before the very first formal state dinner in the Trump White House, there will be ample signs that POTUS and the president of France have great rapport.

Indeed, Trump seems to find the French head of state so sympathique that some American analysts have called Macron “the Trump whisperer,” as if he had a mystical power to tame the wild beast. The French tend to see the pair like the fox and the crow in the fable by La Fontaine where the fox (Macron) so flatters the crow on a high branch that it drops a tasty piece of cheese and the fox runs off with it.

Take a closer look, however, and Macron’s method of dealing with Trump—neither mystical nor the stuff of fables—tells you a lot about how Macron came to power as a centrist in an age of extremes, and suggests how he will govern France now as he confronts labor unrest, a resentful press, and some of his own unforced errors.

“Macron has personal magnetism, there is no doubt about that,” says Adam Plowright, author of The French Exception: Emmanuel Macron, The Extraordinary Rise and Risk, to be published in the United States in June. “But he doesn’t fit any established category, neither politically nor personally.”

The first thing to understand about Macron is that when he said in his campaign last year that he was neither of the left nor the right, he meant it. But those who thought he would be looking constantly for compromises from the unforgiving, defeated political families on both sides sorely misunderstood the man.

Emmanuel Macron is not Barack Obama. He was never a community organizer looking for consensus. He’s not expecting anyone to sing Kumbaya, and we never hear him talk about the “better angels of our nature.” Macron is a former wunderkind in the financial world of mergers and acquisitions, where the failure of a happy marriage in the first category often leads to a hostile takeover in the second. The buzzwords among his advisors are “efficiency,” “pragmatism,” and “results.”

One must be careful about taking from Macron’s example lessons in centrist governance for anyone else or any other country. Macron is utterly, righteously, and often quite arrogantly his own man with his own ideas about what works and what does not in government. He is used to being the smartest guy in the room, and thus far his uncompromising centrism has worked well enough to place in his hands the greatest political power of any French president since Charles de Gaulle.

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
— André Gide, one of French President Macron’s favorite authors

Although he won in a landslide that overwhelmed far-right populist pro-Trump candidate Marine Le Pen last year, the votes cast represented only 18 percent of the total electorate, a point made repeatedly by his critics, even today. But then a few weeks later his newly created party, La République en Marche! (LREM), overwhelmed the National Assembly, winning an absolute majority, 308 of 577 seats. And the presidential and the legislative terms don’t expire until 2022. Unlike Trump, or for that matter, the leaders of Germany, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain, Macron’s mandate is massive.

Voters wanted manageable change, a kickstart to get the economic engine running, rebuild the European Union post-Brexit, control immigration without resorting to draconian measures, and re-assert France’s importance in world affairs. But now, how that is accomplished, is up to Macron, not the masses.

“If he had not swept the National Assembly, he would have been forced into making compromises,” but he did, and he hasn’t been. At least three quarters of the majority in the assembly “know they owe their entire political career to Macron,” says Plowright.

Given such power, and his personality, Macron’s arrogance is becoming legendary. His penchant for pomp and circumstance is notable. In his inaugural parade down the Champs Élysées he was flanked by horsemen in shining 19th-century armor. When he received Russian President Vladimir Putin, it was not in the presidential residence, which is pretty grand, but in Versailles, the vast palace built by Louis XIV. And when he invited Trump to Bastille Day celebrations last year, the American was so impressed with the military parade that he decided he should have one in Washington, too.

When Macron likens his style of governing to the Roman god Jupiter above all the other deities on Olympus, or calls himself “the sun president,” alluding to the Sun King, Louis XIV, it appears he’s only half joking, if that.

In the meantime, he really is hell-bent on breaking old rules in France, including and especially in terms of labor relations. Weeks after his National Assembly majority was installed last summer, he started ramming through changes to the labor code, reducing the rock-hard protections for some workers in hopes that hiring would be more frequent if firing were not such an enormous burden. People predicted upheaval in the streets for September, but that didn’t happen. This spring, the labor unrest has been more organized, and France is putting up with rolling strikes in the transport sector, where the dominant union is the erstwhile Communist CGT, the General Confederation of Labor.

“I think Macron will break them,” says Plowright. A parallel in the United States would be the way Ronald Reagan crushed the air traffic controllers’ union, or, in Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s destruction of the coal unions. As Plowright says bluntly, “It’s a fight to the death for the CGT.”

Recently Macron, who has kept his distance from the press (like Obama, unlike Trump) decided to give some television interviews, and he chose to be confronted earlier this month by two of the most aggressive journalists in France. It was an audacious move, even if the reviews have been mixed.

“Aren’t you in the puerile illusion of the all-powerful?”
— TV interviewer Jean-Jacques Bourdin to President Macron

Edwy Plenel of the investigative news site MediaPart and Jean-Jacques Bourdin of the news channel BFMTV, claiming to speak for an angry population (but mostly speaking for small groups of radical protesters and far-left labor unions), picked up on the common theme that Macron is the president of the rich because, among other things, he cut back the punitive tax on net worth.

Neither journalist addressed Macron as Mr. President during the interview, neither bothered to put on a tie, both sounded like politicians in a debate rather than reporters, and many of their salvos were against Macron’s imperious, imperial ways.

Bourdin, 68, attacked what he called “nostalgia for the monarchy” and made a fairly insulting reference to Macron’s youth. “Aren’t you in the puerile illusion of the all-powerful?”

“Yes, I believe in the power of our institutions. Yes, I believe in authority,” said Macron, but he rejected the accusation of authoritarianism. “Nobody is all powerful in a democracy like ours,” he told them, and the French had elected him to do what he said he would do.

What Macron knows, what he feels, and what he has always felt, is that he is unique.

Raised more by his grandmother than his parents, who were both physicians in the provincial city of Amiens, he seems to have had few friends. According to his campaign autobiography, Revolution, he spent his childhood “immersed in books, a little removed from the world.” Great literature was “more real than reality itself,” he wrote, and among the authors he favored, “Gide and Cocteau were my irreplaceable companions.”

Jean Cocteau and André Gide? Putting aside the fact that both were famously homosexual, Gide’s most famous aphorisms read like a guide to Macron’s thinking. Among them: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore”; “It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not”; and, “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.”

From a very early age, as Macron tells the story and as seems to be the case, everything he did was framed by his ambition, enabled by his intelligence, and carefully calculated: his education, his marriage, the positions he won with the help of influential mentors in finance and then, in politics. He was always appointed—never elected—until he launched what seemed a very long-shot political movement and swept to the presidency. “I chose my life as if, at each stage, everything had been laid out ahead of me,” he wrote in his autobiography.

“It is better to be hated for what you are than to be loved for what you are not.”
— André Gide

“Macron is very successful in sizing up people,” Adam Plowright said over coffee at Le Vaudeville, one of the great old cafés of Paris near his offices at AFP. Macron, since student days, has known how to win favor with “older, wealthy, influential people,” and not only his wife, Brigitte, his former high school teacher who is 24 years his senior and was married with children when they fell in love. “Macron comes across as the ‘ideal son,’ a respectful listener and also one with his own ideas.” Thus, when he deals with the septuagenarian American president, “He flatters Trump, but is extremely careful not to patronize him.”

We know, because Trump repeats or alludes to these things, that Macron talks sincerely about the need to cut red tape and reduce taxes in France, and has taken hitherto unheard of measures to do just that—all of which Trump can see as a many-faceted reflection of his own legislative goals, as if they were walking together through the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

With Trump, Macron plays on the idea that both are outsiders, political insurgents disrupting the old political order, and also on their common goal of keeping order in a world where terrorism is a constant threat, and their two countries are, with Britain, the leading targets of al Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State.

Macron was more than happy to join Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May in the largely symbolic airstrikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad earlier this month after the Syrian president’s latest use of chemicals as weapons. Macron had drawn his own “red lines” against them and made his decision very quickly that he would have to act, not waiting for Trump to decide, according to the interview with Plenel and Bourdin.

Macron also said in separate comments that he had persuaded the reluctant Trump to keep a contingent of American forces in Syria for “the long term,” and to limit the airstrikes rather than go after targets that would have risked direct conflict with Russia and Iran. The White House subsequently insisted it still wants Americans out of Syria “as soon as possible.”

This month, Macron is pushing through changes to France’s often chaotic and self-contradictory immigration laws, speeding up processing for asylum seekers, but also the deportation of those who do not qualify. Inevitably, the left is accusing him of cruel insensitivity, the right proclaiming he is not tough enough. But as Plowright points out, “Governing from the center, you have to get a grip on the immigration issue right now. If you don’t, you will fall prey to darker forces.”

The mass influx of refugees and migrants in 2015, combined with horrific terror attacks by radicalized Muslims that year and the next, remain major factors in the rise of “populist” extremist politicians in France, across Europe, and indeed in the United States. The fight to deal rationally, and humanely, with the issue is going to be a tough one.

So is Macron’s hope that the European Union can be made more perfect. In a recent speech before the European Parliament in Strasbourg he warned of the rise of “illiberal” governments, especially in Eastern Europe. And his push for greater economic integration did not meet with much enthusiasm from German Chancellor Angela Merkel or the richer northern tier countries, which think, with reason, they’d wind up footing the bill for the more impecunious and more fiscally irresponsible EU members.

Macron will have to remain both seductive and combative, and he knows it. But one thing he will not be doing with Trump is playing golf. His sport is tennis and, according to Plowright, there’s a new addition to the facilities at the presidential palace: an area set aside for boxing.

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