TIT PANDEMIC anchored most of the European leaders. But not Emmanuel Macron. In recent weeks, the French president has been in hyperactive diplomatic mode. He flew twice to Lebanon, once to Iraq on his way home. He dispatched a frigate and two fighter jets to help Greece and Cyprus defend their waters against Turkish incursions, and organized a seafront summit of Mediterranean leaders in Corsica to try to rally others to take a stand. firmer against Turkey. On September 28 and 30, the French president left again, this time to Latvia and Lithuania, where he will visit French soldiers serving in a NATO battle group.
What is Mr. Macron doing? Three years ago this month, in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne, he outlined an ambitious plan to reinvigorate the European Union. This was based on two principles: more “solidarity” between the member countries and more assertion of European “sovereignty” in the face of rivalry between the great powers. In July, when the 27 EU Members agreed to issue a mutualized debt for a massive recovery fund, Mr. Macron progressed on his first point. On the second, however, France is still seeking to reconcile its version of the European collective interest, especially in response to regional troublemakers in Turkey, Russia, Libya and elsewhere, with how others see it.
In some ways, the debate changed France’s course. “Mentalities are changing”, declares Clément Beaune, Minister for Europe under Mr. Macron: “We inoculated Europe against hard power, because 70 years ago, we built the project on reconciliation and said that hard power is not for us. Now we are learning to speak the language of power. The phrase “European sovereignty,” which might once have been dismissed as a French abstraction, is now uttered even by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. Ursula von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, said she wanted the commission to be “geopolitical”.
However, as France finds out, such concepts do not mean the same thing to everyone. Take the French position towards Turkey. Mr. Macron’s strong support for the Greek and Cypriot navies, offered in August after a phone call to Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the Greek Prime Minister, was seen in France as obvious: support for a threatened European country, in defense of international law and sovereign borders. Yet it has not been universally welcomed. Norbert Röttgen, Christian Democratic chairman of the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, argued that the EU “Should not choose a side” because “it will only lead to escalation.” Others said it undermined parallel German mediation efforts.
As it turns out, Turkey has now agreed to resume negotiations with Greece, a move Mr Macron applauded during an appeal to the Turkish president. The French argue that it was the division of labor – with Mr. Macron as a warrior and Angela Merkel as a mediator – that won it. Asserting European sovereignty means doing both, they say, and Europe should get used to it.
Doubts about French activities on the periphery of Europe remain, however. The most pressing concern of Mr. Macron’s efforts to create a “strategic dialogue” with Russia. With great fanfare, he invited Vladimir Putin to the official presidential retreat on the Mediterranean in August last year (pictured), saying the best way to keep Russia out of China’s arms was to offer him a place in the eastern periphery of Europe under a new security architecture. . At the time, such suggestions enraged Poland and the Baltic states, which nervously watch Russia on their eastern flank, and consider NATO– which Mr. Macron then criticized – for being their guarantor of security.
The poisoning of Alexei Navalny, Mr Putin’s main opponent, as well as Russia’s support for Alexander Lukashenko’s dictatorship in Belarus, have made Mr Macron’s approach increasingly untenable. Earlier this month, the French canceled a planned “2 + 2” meeting in Paris of French and Russian foreign and defense ministers. The world describes a “deaf dialogue” between Mr. Macron and Mr. Putin, in which the Russian president suggested during a September 14 phone call that Mr. Navalny may have poisoned himself.
“Our strategy must adapt to the circumstances,” said Mr. Beaune. The Economist September 22. “We never said it was an unconditional or irreversible dialogue. The Navalny affair makes the task more difficult in the short term. There was never any question of U-turnings but adaptations. Mr. Macron had already expressed his “reservations” on the German Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to Europe. The tone in Paris hardens.
“Macron is slowly accepting the fact that he is not going anywhere with Putin,” said Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. This does not mean that France has abandoned its longer-term hopes of a constructive dialogue with Russia. But the French president is under pressure to distance himself from the Russian leader at this time. France supported the EUthe plan to impose sanctions on certain Belarusian leaders. Mr Beaune urged Cyprus not to block them. It is said that Mr Macron could meet Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader in exile, while in Lithuania.
Mr Macron’s setback on Russia is by no means his only headache. Home cases of Covid-19 are skyrocketing again. His poll scores remain low. On September 21, Pierre Person, deputy leader of his party, La République en Marche, resigned his post, saying the party “was in danger of disappearing” and “was not producing new ideas”. (The party appointed Mr. Beaune, among others, to propose some.) Amid all of this, the president’s main consolation is that a growing majority of French people give him credit for defending the country’s interests abroad. , even if foreigners are not. still impressed. ■
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “Try to check a circle”