Macron’s G-7 performance arms him for likely troubles ahead

John Leicester
Associated Press

Paris – Showman. Risk-taker. Pedagogue. Also wields a deft touch that helped placate the mood of U.S. President Donald Trump.

French President Emmanuel Macron used the three-day summit of G-7 leaders he hosted to remind the world – and his skeptical country – of something easily forgotten during months of anti-government protests that wounded his presidency: For all of his short-comings, Macron certainly isn’t without talent.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during the annual French ambassadors conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Tuesday, Aug. 27 2019. French President Emmanuel Macron is calling for a new global economic order, decrying an "unprecedented crisis" in the market economy.

“He was brilliant,” said Francois Heisbourg, an adviser at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.

Asked to score Macron’s G-7 performance on a 10-point scale, Heisbourg gave the French president a nine.

“Things went extremely well. He managed to keep Trump happy. Trump did not blow up, he didn’t blow a gasket. That was unheard of.”

Curiously enough, it helped Macron that expectations going into the summit in southwest France’s resort town of Biarritz were extraordinarily meager. The low bar meant that leaders of the Group of Seven merely treating each other with apparent civility could be presented as an achievement.

“Most important of all, we got along great,” Trump said at his summit-end news conference.

The timing of it being France’s turn to host the annual get-together of industrialized powers was also opportune for Macron. The yellow-vest protests against his fiscal policies and eventually against Macron himself dominated the agenda in France from mid-November before petering out in late June, damaging his leadership credentials at home, perhaps irretrievably.

The G-7 summit provided a stage to reassert his relevance. With Britain’s new prime minster, Boris Johnson, consumed by the square-peg, round-hole headache of Brexit, Italy yet again in political disarray, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the twilight of her last term, Macron sought to fill the vacuum with vigorous diplomacy, positioning himself as a European Mr. Can-Do.

Perhaps most impressive was Macron’s snake-charming of Trump on Iran. Macron’s surprise decision to invite Iran’s foreign minister for talks on the sidelines of the summit could easily have back-fired and infuriated Trump. But the French leader tip-toed around his U.S. counterpart, painstakingly keeping him informed of every step.

Going to such lengths to brush Trump the right way, including maneuvering him into a one-on-one lunch on the summit’s first day, showed that Macron can be a quick study, capable of adapting to Trump’s idiosyncrasies.

Macron took office in 2017 four months after Trump. Their relationship has sometimes resembled an arm-wrestling contest, famously punctuated by virile handshakes, pungent tweets and enduring sharp differences on climate change and Iran.

In Biarritz, a more deferential approach from Macron appeared to pay dividends. Trump played along with Macron’s suggestion that the French leader’s mediation might open a path for a meeting between the U.S. and Iranian presidents.

“If the circumstances were correct or right, I would certainly agree to that,” Trump said.

Heisbourg said he was struck by Macron’s “sheer persistence.”

“I would have thought that he would have given up on Trump by now, but he hasn’t. And he is starting to get rewarded,” he said. “Whatever happens with Iran, Macron will have tried. If he succeeds, well, he gets the Nobel Peace Prize or whatever and, if he fails, it will not have been for fault of trying.”

The ‘but’ for Macron – and a big but at that – is that acclaimed performances on the world stage aren’t a major vote-winner in France. Repeatedly during the G-7 weekend, in TV appearances and statements to the media, Macron took time to carefully explain how summit discussions could be relevant to the people of France.

He broke down diplomatic complexities in layman’s terms, showing that he hasn’t lost the communication skills that helped him win the presidency despite having little government experience but which have deserted him at times in power.

However, the afterglow of Biarritz might wear off quicker than the caramel suntan Macron brought back from his summer vacation as France returns from beach holidays to work and domestic issues come back to the fore.

The months ahead could again be rocky as Macron seeks to get modernization plans for France back on track after the protests disrupted his reform agenda.

On touchy issues such as pension reform that French workers feel more directly than international issues like Iran, Macron will need to tread as carefully as he did with Trump to avoid risking breathing life back into the embers of the yellow-vest movement.

“He comes out of the G-7 in shining armor,” Heisbourg said. “But he knows how close he came to the brink during the yellow vests.”