How Emmanuel Macron positioned himself as star of the G-7 show

US President Donald Trump (left) and France's President Emmanuel Macron talk prior to a family picture with G-7 leaders and guests.
US President Donald Trump (left) and France's President Emmanuel Macron talk prior to a family picture with G-7 leaders and guests.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (NYTIMES) - President Emmanuel Macron of France seemed to be everywhere at once during the Group of 7 (G-7) summit. For the space of a weekend, at least, the West appeared to have one person running the show, and it was not the US president.

One day, Macron was wooing President Donald Trump over a long, private lunch. The next he was flying in the Iranian foreign minister for unannounced talks. He seized the role as chief defender of the global climate, telling Brazilians to get themselves a new president. He even prompted a surprise diplomatic opening on Iran from Trump, even if both initiatives hit early headwinds on Tuesday (Aug 27).

Macron missed no opportunity to wring every advantage from his role as host of the summit in the southern resort city of Biarritz. It gave him the perfect stage to pursue his ambition, both grandiose and self-serving, to position France, and himself, as candidates to fill the vacancy left by Trump's retreat from traditional Western values.

With Trump deepening US isolation on major global issues, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany on a glide path out of power, Macron has become the leading champion of European unity and multilateralism.

Macron clearly wanted to use the G-7 forum to show the world that neither are dead letters. He also wanted to show off himself.

The Elysee Palace offered several news outlets behind-the-scenes access to the French president during the summit. Macron organised the events to avoid the missteps that have produced undiplomatic outbursts from Trump in the past.

His lunch with Trump on Day 1 established that this forum was for two leaders as much as it was for seven, as did the leaders' joint news conference at the summit's end. Those touches went far in sating the US president's ego, even as they effectively elevated the two men to the status of first among equals.

But Macron's objective appeared to be not so much showing up his American counterpart as reasserting the efficacy of the European approach to global problems.

He said as much last week, telling journalists that the summit was a way to demonstrate that the "European civilization project" was an "answer" in a world searching for "global stability."

"If we can't redefine the terms of our sovereignty, we can't defend our project," Macron said to reporters before leaving for Biarritz.

"Man is at the heart of the project," he said, adding that the "relationship to the dignity of man, to humanism" was "the foundation of European civilisation."

 
 
 
 
 

In the context of global diplomacy, that means eschewing the threats, bullying and humiliation favoured by Trump and what Macron called the "nationalist-sovereignists" in favour of multilateral diplomacy and a refusal to demonise adversaries.

Macron's domestic stock, only lately creeping up after being battered by months of Yellow Vest protests, has improved further after what the French media characterised as a successful summit.

He "managed to be at the forefront and sometimes at the center of some of the hottest diplomatic issues of the day," said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.

Macron came out of the G-7 meeting "as well as any head of state can," Tertrais said, adding that he had "appeared as someone who can achieve results on the key multilateral issues."

"It does establish its credentials as a global leader for multilateralism and liberal values," Tertrais said of the summit. "I'm actually quite favorably impressed."

Not everyone was as enamoured of the presumptive French role, however. Early in the weekend Trump's aides complained that the agenda that Macron set focused more on what they called "niche issues" like climate change than on global economic challenges.

And on Tuesday, President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil angrily rejected an aid package of more than US$22 million (S$30 million), offered by leaders at the summit, to fight fires in the Amazon rainforest, and said Macron was treating Brazil ''as if we were a colony or a no-man's land."

There was also little doubt that, try as he might to play the role of global standard-bearer, Macron would not get far without allies - particularly on issues like trade and climate change - and that their ranks were thinning.

Macron "seemed dynamic," but relatively alone, said Nicolas Tenzer, who teaches at Sciences Po, a leading university for political science in Paris.

Tenzer said that Macron had ''a better grasp of the issues" than Trump or Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, but added that, with the German chancellor nearing the end of her tenure, ''he's the only one."

"It's a great advantage, and also a source of solitude."

On the Iranian question in particular, Macron appeared to be nudging Trump in a new direction.

He got Trump to swallow the surprise visit of an Iranian official, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in the midst of a conflict that has escalated in recent months with a string of episodes involving oil tankers and drones near Iran.

He even got Trump to agree, in principle, to a possible meeting with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran. Such a meeting would be the first between American and Iranian leaders since the Tehran hostage crisis of 1979-81, though Rouhani said that he would not sit down with Trump until Washington ended its economic sanctions.

"It's the beginning of something," Macron said.

Macron was careful to offer guarded praise for the US position, which he said "creates pressure, and conditions for a better agreement."

And he got Trump to say he was against "regime change" in Iran, reassuring European officials who have been worried about the worst for months.

On the economic front, Macron said a major issue for him was "Can we pacify international commerce?"

It was "an error in reasoning" to engage in "commercial war and isolationism," Macron said. And again, he got Trump to sound notes on the trade war that were far more conciliatory toward China than over preceding days.

It was in his handling of Trump, the declared enemy of multilateralism and unabashed wrecker of summits, that Macron showed his greatest agility.

The relationship has had its ups and downs over the past two years, with the French president's early efforts to woo his American counterpart proving spectacularly unsuccessful and eroding his popularity back home.

The leaders clashed as recently as November, when Macron denounced nationalism in a speech at events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I and Trump responded with a scathing series of Twitter posts that highlighted the French leader's low approval rating.

This time was different. Macron's technique was evident as the two men stood side by side at the final news conference: Macron appeared always respectful, sharply curbing his own tendency for long-winded, abstract explanations that might have irritated Trump.

Nor did Macron launch into the numbing detail on secondary issues with which he battered French journalists at a later news conference. And he went out of his way to praise a leader who has been openly mocked by a number of his counterparts.

"We've worked very closely, with lots of energy, with President Trump these last days," Macron said at the news conference.

"And we're going to continue to work together in the coming months. We'll be side-by-side in all of these fights."

That one-on-one lunch he organised for Trump - aides only joined at the end - evidently went far to mollify the US president. Trump spoke effusively about the meeting afterwards.

"We had a lunch that lasted for quite a while, just the two of us," Trump said. "It was the best period of time we've ever had. We weren't trying to impress anybody, just each other."