Inside Story

A Macron moment

Macronmania came to Australia this week, but back in France the president might be facing his “Thatcher moment”

Natalie J. Doyle 3 May 2018 2224 words

Another audience: French president Emmanuel Macron on board the Australian aircraft carrier HMAS Canberra in Sydney yesterday. Peter Parks/AFP Pool/AAP Image

Emmanuel Macron landed in Sydney on Tuesday, fresh from a high-profile visit to the United States and still buoyed by the “Macronmania” that has swept the world since his election. Much hope had been invested in his capacity to persuade Donald Trump to resist the temptations of American isolationism, and many leaders would once again have envied the rapport he seems to have established with Trump when the American president attended last year’s French national day celebrations on the Champs-Élysées.

While Macron was careful to stroke the American president’s sensitive ego, he surprised many with a robust speech to Congress in which he reaffirmed the value of multilateral trade, reminded political leaders of the need to persist with the Iran nuclear deal and reaffirmed the importance of the Paris climate agreement, from which Trump has so blithely moved away. But will the French president’s soft-power strategy win concessions from Trump? Many doubt it, but only time can tell: diplomatic influence takes time and works beyond the media glare.

What was also striking was Macron’s courting of the next generation of American decision-makers at a very informal discussion with students at Georgetown University. This has become a standard feature of his international itinerary: whether he’s in India or Africa, he insists on addressing a young audience, leveraging his own relative youth to extoll the benefits of French higher education and French research and development, and projecting the message that “France is back” on the global economic and political stage.

Macron’s visit to Australia is one of a long list of international engagements, coming on top of visits to many other European countries. His arrival in Sydney brings his tally of continents to five of the seven, and no other French president has spent so much of his first year globetrotting. Where does the Australian visit fit into Macron’s political strategy? First of all, it’s important to remember that he is seeking to seduce different publics: an international one, a European one (to position himself as the next great European leader) and a national one back in France. The latter — as recent protests have highlighted — is far from being wholly supportive. For this Australian visit, a New Caledonian audience can be added, for he will visit Nouméa next, just a few months before a referendum decides whether the territory accedes to full sovereignty or retains links to France.

In this respect, Macron’s trip is full of symbolism. He will arrive in New Caledonia in time to take part in the remembrance services for the unrest in 1988 that triggered the independence negotiations and led to the Nouméa agreement of 1998, which allowed for this year’s referendum. In keeping with his self-proclaimed wish to be a “Jupiterian” president, above social divisions and political squabbles, he has been careful to stress that he won’t take any position on the referendum itself. But he has signalled that he will make an important speech before leaving the territory. It’s possible that the talks in Australia will have some influence on its content.

Macron’s Australian visit crowns four years of collaboration on the first world war centenary celebrations, which culminated in the opening of the John Monash Centre in Northern France last week. The timing puts the spotlight on the history of the military alliance and more broadly on defence collaboration, especially as it bears on the fight against Islamic terrorism. The two countries have shared terror-related intelligence since the deportation in 2003 of a French citizen, Willy Brigitte, who planned to establish an al Qaeda cell in Sydney.

At the intersection of defence and trade, Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, secured the $50 billion contract that will see a French company build twelve submarines, designed in Cherbourg, for the Australian navy. The project led to new links between the Brittany region and South Australia, the centre of the Australian government’s new naval shipbuilding plan.

In this respect, Macron’s visit was partly after-sales service. But he also has a far more ambitious strategic vision than his predecessor, which was apparent in talks at Sydney’s Garden Island naval base, which was designed to forge a strong Franco-Australian partnership to strengthen Indo-Pacific cooperation. The “security diamond” that links Australia to the United States, Japan and India is likely to be a particular focus: in the face of growing Chinese involvement in the region, this originally Japanese initiative is designed to pursue the associated objectives of a rules-based regional order, free trade, and security for smaller Southeast Asian and East Asian countries.

During his visit to India in March, Macron aligned himself strongly with prime minister Narendra Modi’s foreign-policy agenda. France has a particular interest in the Indian Ocean. Alone among European countries, it maintains a base there, an acknowledgement of the ocean’s importance as a trade and communications route. (Three-quarters of all European trade travels through the Indian Ocean and it is criss-crossed by internet cables.) Like other Western leaders, Macron is concerned with the need to manage China’s growing presence in the region, all the more so because of Trump’s erratic leadership. China has secured a military base in Djibouti, for example, a country that was once part of the French zone of influence on the Horn of Africa.

Macron’s interest in the Indo-Pacific region is part of a broader objective: not only to become the de facto leader of the European Union but also to be the leader who fulfils the underlying French vision that fuelled the EU’s creation, to give his country a leading role in the Western alliance. In this, he is perhaps the antithesis of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who made the decision to put the French armed forces back under NATO central command, and much more heir to presidents François Mitterrand and Charles de Gaulle, who, despite their different political allegiances, saw “Europe” as the vehicle for France’s influence. Both men pursued economic power, but only insofar as it could push France’s cultural influence; both saw in the European Union’s multi-level, rules-based governance a civilisational model. To his credit, Macron sees the need to combat climate change, and to honour the progress made at the Paris conference in 2015, as a major aspect of this model and has reminded prime minister Malcolm Turnbull of his own earlier commitment to action on climate change.

Macron and Turnbull do share common ground but have divergent priorities. For Australia, Macron’s visit is a golden opportunity to push forward negotiations with the European Union on a free-trade agreement. This has been an objective of the European Commission for a while, but Brexit gave the project much more impetus. As Britain plans its withdrawal from the European Union, Australia fears a repeat shock, in reverse, of what it experienced when it was locked out of the British market following Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community in 1973.

Macron is very mindful, however, of the European Union’s crisis of legitimacy as a result of the global financial crisis — or rather, as a result of the way it managed the crisis under the leadership of Angela Merkel. By imposing austerity across member countries, European policy-makers have kept economic growth anaemic everywhere except in Germany itself. At a Brussels summit in October last year, Macron warned of the dangers of pushing ahead with free-trade treaties when public opinion is hostile. A number of non-government organisations, trade unions and politicians have accused the treaties of undermining social norms, environmental protections and health standards.

As a consequence, negotiations for the Canada–Europe Trade Agreement were fraught, and the deal could still be derailed if one country vetoes it. Further complicating Europe’s position is the eternal problem faced by French governments, the need to manage an agricultural sector that has been under great pressure. As a result, official declarations about Macron’s visit to Australia have stressed that negotiations would only concern bilateral commercial agreements.

Big French companies are of course in favour of such a free-trade treaty with Australia. The current involvement of French construction giants Vinci and Bouygues in Melbourne’s infrastructure revamp has demonstrated the potential for expanded operations here. More broadly, French business is acutely aware of the fact that Australia’s economy is highly interdependent with China’s and that the country could be a useful platform to make headway in the Asian market.

But business doesn’t have to worry about securing popular support. Macron, on the other hand, is acutely aware of its importance following the wave of social protest triggered by his attempts to move France to a system of collective bargaining and to prepare the country to meet the European Commission’s directive on the liberalisation of railway transport, which set 2020 as the deadline for France’s main national lines to be opened to competition. With the railway system running at a loss, this delicate issue overlaps with the question of public debt. The strengthened EU rules established following the Greek financial crisis make it imperative for France to reduce its budget deficit.

The French government’s attempt to turn the national railway, the SNCF, into a private company has met with union resistance. A decent level of public support exists for the strikers, though it is eroding as disruption continues. In many ways, the SNCF — by binding the country with a network of lines that radiate out from Paris — is a symbol of the social pact French governments struck with France as a whole after the liberation from Nazi occupation. What people fear is that the profitable lines surrounding major cities will be retained but the periphery will be left to its own devices with possible negative social and environmental consequences.

The French presidential campaign made it clear that French society is deeply divided: the half of France that still operates within a national rather than international economic environment feels it has been abandoned by governments. Some have dubbed Macron’s attempt to reform the SNCF his “Thatcher Moment,” recalling the Iron Lady’s confrontation with mining unions in the mid 1980s. Macron has remained firm in the face of the protests, and will be hoping that En Marche! members of the National Assembly, under party leader Richard Ferrand, can swing popular opinion over to its program of liberalisation.

One test will be the next electoral contest, in 2019, when the French people choose their representatives to the European Parliament. European elections have traditionally attracted less interest than national elections in France, but Macron’s promise to engineer a change of Europe’s direction, combined with the political discontent evident in other European countries, means they could be much more decisive for national politics.

During his election campaign, Macron undertook to reform the European monetary union to give the European Union the capacity to mutualise debt and drive large investment projects. But the recent German federal elections confirmed what many had suspected: Germany will not go along with such a reform.

For a while, with the retirement of Wolfgang Schäuble (the architect of austerity) and the debates within Germany’s Social Democratic Party, or SPD, a change in German policy seemed possible. It was hoped that Germany would face up to the unsustainability of its incredible trade surplus (8 per cent of GDP, more than China’s widely criticised figure) and allow the grave economic balances between countries to be corrected. The SPD’s decision to once again join a “grand coalition” and the appointment of Olaf Scholz as finance minister dashed those hopes: Scholz is just as much a fervent believer in the virtues of a “schwarze Null” (a “black zero,” or balanced budget) as Merkel and he will not push for more national spending to rebalance exports and imports between Germany and the rest of the eurozone.

To put it differently, even though Merkel’s leadership has been weakened, Germany will continue vetoing the reforms many economists now realise are needed to resolve the imbalances and recover economic growth in Europe. Added to this is the fact that the countries that have been through punishing austerity measures and have reduced their budget deficits are unlikely to follow France in a stand-off with Germany.

Macron is desperately hoping that labour reform in France will be enough to deliver some economic growth and secure French popular support for his European vision. He also hopes that his international stature will encourage not only the French electorate but also other countries to stand by him. In France, his new party does not yet have a solid electoral base and the proposed reforms are therefore a major gamble for Ferrand’s government.

Emmanuel Macron was in many ways elected by default, as the result of the disintegration of the French Socialist Party, the fear surrounding the possibility of a French Trump, Marine Le Pen, and the corruption allegations against the candidate from the right, François Fillon. It is fair to say that he is walking a tightrope and it remains to be seen whether his charisma and the hope he has inspired — both of them on display in Australia this week — are enough for him to deliver the change that France, Europe and perhaps the Western world are calling for. ●