France's Macron flexes newfound international star power after squaring off against Trump for dumping Paris climate deal
The willingness of the new French president - at 39, the youngest anyone can remember - to speak his mind is far from a secret
In a sense, he is already a star, the prince regent of Paris and Pittsburgh alike.
Less than a month after his landslide victory in the French presidential elections, the boyish and photogenic Emmanuel Macron has become the anointed darling and principal spokesman of political moderates around the world, a fierce advocate of “radical centrism,” globalisation and - following US President Donald Trump’s watershed decision to remove the United States from the Paris accord - curbing climate change.
By now, the willingness of the new French president - at 39, the youngest anyone can remember - to speak his mind is far from a secret. In the past week alone, Macron has publicly squared off against not one but two major world leaders: Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, both of whom embrace the kind of insular nationalism Macron handily defeated in the French election.
Antics such as these - a six-second handshake with Trump and blasting Russian-owned media while standing next to Putin - have endeared Macron to supporters at home and transformed him into even more of a celebrity on social media, but his newfound star power may not translate into political power on the world stage, analysts say, and especially not with his opponents.
For some, the new president’s popularity is primarily a function of chance.
“There is the feeling that, once more, Macron is incredibly lucky,” said Dominique Moïsi, a foreign policy expert at the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank close to Macron.
“Inside, all his adversaries are collapsing one after the other. And outside, there is an American president that makes him look great without even having to do anything.”
But for others, Macron’s recent dealings with the notably irascible Trump, whom he met for the first time in Brussels last week, show the potential downsides of the French president’s cultivated persona.
When Trump met Macron, for instance, the two men engaged in the quiet duel of a forceful, sustained handshake at the American Embassy - a moment widely seen as an understated victory for Macron’s particular brand of Gallic machismo.
Watch: Trump and Macron in prolonged handshake
But while the meaning of that encounter might otherwise have been left to commentators to interpret, Macron then gave a bombshell interview to the French newspaper Journal du Dimanche, in which he explained beyond any reasonable doubt his motive in grabbing the hand of the president of the United States for such an unusually prolonged period of time.
“It was a moment of truth,” Macron told the newspaper.
“We must show that we will not make small concessions, even symbolic ones.”
Aides to Trump subsequently told The Washington Post that Macron’s remarks significantly irked the president, who then relished delivering the line, in his speech about withdrawing from the historic climate-change agreement, that he had been elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
But the saga did not end there. Just hours after Trump spoke, Macron was back on the airwaves, poised to deliver the following line, a provocative recasting of Trump’s campaign slogan: “Make our planet great again,” he said - in perfect English - before reiterating his previous invitation to American environmental scientists and researchers.
“To all scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, responsible citizens who were disappointed by the decision of the US,” Macron said, “come here with us to work together on concrete solutions for our climate, our environment.”
Watch: Macron urges US climate researchers to ‘come here and work with us’
On Friday, Macron met with Billionaire climate advocate Michael Bloomberg as the political and grassroots response to Trump’s ditching of the Paris Agreement built up steam.
Bloomberg, who is the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy for Cities and Climate Change, said that US cities, states, businesses and others would aim to meet the United States’ commitment to reducing emissions 26 per cent below the 2005 levels by 2025.
The New York Times said that Bloomberg’s unnamed group so far includes 30 mayors, three governors, more than 80 university presidents and more than 100 businesses.
In Paris, many interpret Macron’s embrace of theatrical declarations as a means of boosting his popularity with voters in advance of France’s two-round legislative elections, slated for mid-June.
Despite his landslide victory in the presidential contest, Macron is still a political unknown without a formal party backing. His ability to govern and to deliver on his ambitious campaign promises depends on a parliamentary majority for the new party he established last year, En Marche (Onward).
“He has a strategy of postponing every tough decision until after June 18th, because he wants to get the majority in Parliament, which he may get,” said Patrick Weil, a French legal scholar.
“Everything is done to seduce the voters, and for the moment it works well.”
Said Moïsi: “It carries some risks with Donald Trump, but it’s an asset for his image in France and in Europe - and, for that matter, for his image before so many Americans who do not see themselves in Trump.”
Additional reporting by Reuters