As arguments have raged in Europe about how to fund the heavy cost of the corona pandemic, French President, Emanuel Macron, has led calls for a European response. Macron’s political career is defined by his strongly pro-European stance but the pandemic may prove the greatest test of Europe and Macron thus far. Former editor and foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, William Drozdiak, has written a new biography of President Macron, released last month. Based on hours of interviews with Macron and his advisors, Drozdiak spoke to us recently about his new book which charts the young President’s youth and rapid political progress to the many challenges he now faces.
Emmanuel Macron became France’s youngest president ever at the age of 39. Drozdiak describes him as ‘a thinker’, a philosopher and a reader who cherishes his private time. This has caused problems for him as a president. He has been accused of being remote and likened to the distant planet of Jupiter in the French press. Drozdiak agrees that Macron struggles to be ‘a man of the people’ in the manner of Jacque Chirac or even Mitterrand. But he has also displayed ‘Herculean ambition’ in his efforts to revitalize France and Europe and re-shape the world order. The biographer points to the wide range of challenges he has faced during his time in office including the rise of populism at home and abroad. Trump’s attacks on NATO, the resurgence of anti-Semitism and the endless turmoil of Brexit have not helped.
Macron’s efforts to modernize France began before he became President. In 2012, he put forward a proposal to increase the 35 hour work week to 37 hours and he tried to stop the large tax increases on the highest earners that were planned by Holland’s government. Although a member of the Socialist Party since youth, Macron believed that revitalization of the French economy was the key to a revitalized Europe. He told Drozdiak that he had believed that he and German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, had an implicit bargain: if he could push through a variety of ambitious reforms in his own country, Merkel would show equal ambition in her plans to unite Europe. In the model of former German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, Macron trusted that Merkel ultimately shared his vision of a stronger political union, not just a common market. He was disappointed.
Upon coming to power in May, 2017, Macron began an ambitious series of reforms before striking resistance in the form of the Gilles Jaunes (Yellow Vest) movement. The President told Bill Drozdiak that the ferocity of their response and the acceleration of violence and polarization that it caused was something he did not foresee. He agrees that this has been the greatest shock of his presidency thus far. As French academic, Dominque Moisi put it, Macron is simply too young, too successful and too good-looking for those who have suffered from poverty and deprivation all their lives. Nevertheless, a relentless sense of urgency characterizes Macron’s presidency. The young premier told Drozdiak more than once that he feels very strongly about the limited time he has to push his policies through in order that they have a chance to bear fruit before the next elections. The biographer agrees that Macron’s failure to read the warning signs from his own countrymen may well be due to his lack of experience as a political leader.
Experienced or not, Macron now faces what Drozdiak sees as the first big crisis in a post-American world. The biographer tells us that he spoke last with the French president in November, 2019. Ironically he confided to the author at this time that he was feeling despondent as he felt Europe was not prepared for the next big crisis. Macron admitted that he didn’t know what it would be but felt sure that it would push the Union to breaking point. Enter: Covid 19. The French president sees the pandemic as a real threat to the European Union and the wider global system, both are susceptible to destructive nationalism. Macron sees this crisis as a moment of truth for Europe, says Drozdiak, a make or break moment.
The French president is hoping to use the opportunity that the corona outbreak has presented to push for a more politically integrated union. He is adamant that this is the only way that Europe can deal with the challenges of the 21st century, aside from corona. He speaks of the rise of China, the retreat of the US from its global role and the increasing belligerency of Russia. Macron admits that his interactions on the world stage with leaders like Trump, Putin and China have left him feeling isolated. Bill Drozdiak sums up his presidency so far as ‘a rollercoaster ride of successes and failures’. Given the scope of his vision for France, Europe and the global order more broadly, this is perhaps inevitable. Souwie Buis 1st May 2020