You couldn’t help but breathe a sigh of relief when Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as president. When a crazed Putin is causing havoc and looming economic doom is upon us, it was reassuring to see Macron returning to power. The slayer of Le Pen, the saviour of Europe, could now help shape the new world order for years to come, the political commentariat told us. But for all the lyrical waxing about his capabilities as a statesman, the reality is that his political fortunes are depleting at a rapid rate, with his handling of the crisis in Ukraine being suspect, to say the least. But if he succeeds in playing a vital role in the conclusion of the war and in mitigating the aftermath, he will thoroughly cement his place in history, following the path of his great heroes…
Long before the war in Ukraine however, Macron did show remarkable foresight in his analysis of the shifting power dynamics seen throughout the West. It hardly takes a touch of genius to conclude that America in recent years has become untrustworthy, but Macron has been vocal in his vision of an independent European foreign and military policy, an idea which at the time seemed fanciful, but is showing itself to be acute, and increasingly possible. This has given him cachet in the eyes of many experts and spectators of European politics.
But at this present moment, you can’t help but get a Neville Chamberlain-appeasement vibe from him. The similarities became apparent before the war even broke out, when he conducted diplomatic efforts without the consultation of other nations, believing that his own personal authority and the grandeur of French diplomacy carried enough weight to deter Putin from invading Ukraine. The numerous phone-calls made to the Kremlin (the figure of 100 hours in total has been touted) hasn’t stopped Russia from anything. And he has double-downed on this approach in recent weeks; dialing up Putin at every possible juncture, urging the rest of Europe to spare Putin of “humiliation” and telling Ukraine: “At some point, we will have to negotiate with Russia!“.
Of course, one should dampen the urge to view these matters as a binary choice between appeasement or an outright defeat. The conflict is complex, there is a serious threat of nuclear weapons being deployed, and the sad reality is that the war itself and the ensuing consequences will stretch well into the future. We must come to a standstill. But imagine the glee on Putin's face, when some sycophant delivered the message that Macron had publicly urged Zelensky to seriously consider peace talks, at a time when momentum was in Ukraine’s favour, in effect offering Putin an off-ramp without any serious repercussions.
Macron fancies himself as a historian (and as a philosopher, artist, economist, virologist and a scientist), drawing sweeping parallels between the consequences of Versailles to the future predicament of our relationship with Russia. It would do him good instead to reflect on the widespread political consensus, which emerged in the last 20 years and has led us to this crisis:
‘Putin may be a scoundrel, but since he will remain in power, let's allow him some leeway and integrate Russia into the European eco-system to rein him in a bit.’ Then, as now, this view totally excludes the possibility of removing him from power and fails to grip with the fact that as in Crimea, a small territorial concession by the West will be spun as a victory by Putin. He is hell-bent on expanding Russia, and a small reprimand from Macron and co. won’t stop him from trying to achieve his goal.
There is an old Roman anecdote about a woman praying for the survival of a tyrannical emperor subjected to plots of assassination, and when asked why, she remarks that every time a bad emperor is killed, the successor is even worse. And to give some credit to Macron, he doesn’t subscribe to the naïve assumption that the heir to Putin will be naturally inclined to tilt towards the West. There is a high probability that neo-fascist tendencies and anti-western sentiments have been exacerbated in Russia during the war. There will be a need for strategic thinking and a coherent plan to cope with this possible scenario in the future, and Macron is an obvious candidate to do that.
But why can’t he just go about his business in silence without every other day proclaiming some new vision or political project? Just look at his latest half-baked proposal for a new European political community, which Ukraine may have the opportunity to join. It may sound good, but does anyone seriously believe that he has the grit to see the project through, and that it’s not just a soundbite to counter the criticism he has faced over the last few months?
Or look at his recent trip to Ukraine, where his first-class acting skills were on display, smiling a bit too much for the occasion and waving profusely to the crowds as some political hopeful returning to the provinces to secure votes. The now almost infamous picture of him and a tense Zelensky (avoiding eye contact at all costs) shaking hands is a great illustration of the nagging feeling you have been left these last few months, that Macron is acting in his own interest, vain and desperate to be seen as a friend of Ukraine, when the reality points to the contrary.
While he is unpopular domestically and got elected on the mandate of “the alternative is worse”, France does seem well-equipped for the future. Their post-Covid economy is thriving with growth predicted at 4%, they also have an ambitious plan to re-nationalize industry with the aim of rectifying social inequality, and due to a long-standing policy based on energy security, they derive about 70% of their electricity from nuclear energy. And furthermore, with the power vacuum at the heart of Europe, and their great historic rival Germany turning inwards and seeming devoid of strong leadership, France could emerge as a genuine world power. This is where, in my opinion, Macron should direct his focus and energy.
He may conceal his strong romantic urge to impose himself on historical events underneath the veneer of technocratic competence. But in his wish, he resembles his arch-nemesis across the channel Boris Johnson. Johnson will be removed from power sooner rather than later, but I’m willing to bet on the fact that decades ahead the achievement of getting Brexit done, the impressive vaccine roll-out and the early spearheading of military support for the Ukrainians, will be seen as quite significant. In moments of chaos and uncertainty, he has bent the arch of history to his will.
Macron can outdo that British ‘buffoon’, because just as his faults are frustrating, his gifts are considerable. Karl Marx once remarked of the ridiculous figure of Napoleon III, that: “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce”, and if Macron doesn’t change tune quickly, he will end up as just that.