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Verdict on French President Macron’s first international test: A+

Stéphane de Sakutin | AFP French President Emmanuel Macron takes a stroll in Traormina, Italy at the G7 summit
7 min

All eyes were on the French president this week as he made his debut on the international stage. Did Emmanuel Macron win his first real diplomatic and image test on the international stage?


French President Emmanuel Macron is no novice to international summits, he attended many as an economic advisor to former president François Hollande. But in contrast to his predecessor, who spoke openly to the media and had a soft spot for journalists, the new French leader’s communication strategy is a tightly-scripted -- almost Obama-stylised -- controlled operation.

And it was no different this week for the photogenic young leader’s first foray into international diplomacy.

Less than two weeks after taking office, Macron completed an intense three-day diplomatic marathon that revealed the young, and relatively inexperienced, leader’s steely determination.

It started off in Brussels on May 25th, with a show of Macron’s grit during his first meeting with the unpredictable US President Donald Trump. The first photo opportunity came before the start of the NATO summit, when both men met for the first time at the US ambassador’s residence in the Belgium capital.

Macron and Trump’s clashing views on a number of foreign policy issues including climate change, trade and multilateralism, could have made for a tense tête à tête, but both men emerged smiling from the meeting.

However, they then took part in the obligatory handshake for the banks of waiting journalists -- this turned into a now infamous headline-grabbing handshake battle with Macron squeezing Trump’s hand until his knuckles turned white, with the French president refusing to let go. FRANCE 24’s White House correspondant Philip Crowther said both leaders’ jaws were clenched into false grins, with the young president on the world stage glaring determinedly at the American. It was a metaphorical battle with Trump that Macron – thirty years his junior - was determined to win (and according to Social Media, where it was top trending and labelled the ‘handshake showdown’, Macron won by a landslide).

"That handshake wasn't innocent, it wasn't an alpha political game, but a moment of truth," Emmanuel Macron told the French weekly Journal du Dimanche of the now notorious handshake on Sunday. "It is important to show that small concessions -- even symbolic ones -- will not be made, but it is also important not to make too much of it.”

Small gestures which send out big messages

This good start appears to have emboldened the French president. Later on that day, as he was walking towards world leaders at the start of the Nato summit in front of the world’s press (again…), the pro-NATO and pro-EU Macron seemed to be walking towards the US president – who extended his hand in preparation – before deliberately swerving at the last minute to greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a move that seemed to say ‘Europe first’, with Trump’s hand left hanging midair. He then turned towards the Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel and the NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Finally Trump got his chance to fight back when Macron finally acknowledged him: he grabbed Macron’s hand and yanked it towards him, with Macron yanking it back and patting the 70-year-old on the arm in a – it could be argued -- patronising manner.

See the video - from Macron's own Twitter account - below:

“The new president was having his baptism of fire on the international stage and he passed the ‘Trump’ test with flying colours,” the L’Union French newspaper commented. “These are small gestures which send out big messages”.

Favourable to Europe, but not ‘Euro-dumbstruck’

Macron held a number of other, carefully-crafted meetings on the sidelines of the NATO summit.

During a talk with the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, he directly addressed the fate of the French photo journalist Mathias Depardon, who has been detained in Turkey. This struck a contrast with François Hollande, who was criticised for being weak on human rights. The Turkish premier promised to look into the issue.

That same day, Macron, who made the European Union a cornerstone of his election campaign, also strove to show he was a strong - but independent - European leader.

“I am favourable to Europe, but not ‘Euro-dumbstruck’”, he told EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

A ‘Bromance’…

After Brussels, Macron flew to Italy for the G7 summit which many analysts forecast would be one of the most difficult in years, as disagreements with the US over the Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreement threatened to boil over, and challenging trade and immigration issues loomed.

The picturesque hilltop town of Traormina in Sicily provided a beautiful backdrop for Macron to meet and build relationships with the leaders of the world’s wealthiest nations – and show his resolve, despite his youth, which he used to his advantage.

A meeting in a stunning flower-filled park between Macron and his Canadian counterpart, 45 year-old Justin Trudeau, set the internet aflutter with jokes of a ‘bromance’.

It would have been difficult for the handsome and dapper young leaders not to look good in such a setting, particularly alongside longtime Twitter favourite Trudeau.

Among flowered walkways and with the blue Mediterranean sea sparkling in the background, both men struck a sharp contrast to their older counterparts. To the delight of the photographers, people-watchers and the internet, Macron was even seen picking a flower.

"The Franco-Canadian friendship has a new face," Macron tweeted afterwards. "@JustinTrudeau, it's up to us to take on the challenges of our generation!"
To which the Canadian prime minister – and media-darling -- Trudeau responded:

"Sitting down with @EmmanuelMacron for the first time, talking jobs, security & climate -- looking forward to more conversations, my friend".

… and some muscle flexing

Macron made new friends in Italy, but he also showed he was no push-over.

In official talks with the UK Prime Minister Theresa May on May 26th, he dismissed her request for early talks on a Brexit trade deal with the EU. At a round table on trade and climate change with Donald Trump and other world leaders, Macron was particularly forceful about upholding the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. At the summit's close, the American president said he would postpone his decision to stick with the accord or leave it, much to the chagrin of his ‘allies’.

Keeping the press at a distance

During his election campaign, Macron pledged to restore the prestige of the French presidency. This meant in contrast, no doubt, to his unpopular predecessor François Hollande, who boasted about being a ‘normal president’ and was often seen gossiping and joking with journalists. From the outset, Macron and his team of tightly-knit aides, have kept the press at a distance.

At both summits, Macron made it clear than he would answer few questions from the media and did not invite any members of the press to travel to the summits with him on his presidential jet.

A king of communications

The week however, was hailed by all accounts as a success, with the Italian press describing the French president as the ‘antidote’ to the US president. The famous Italian newspaper La Stampa enthused that Macron was ‘the most photographed leader’ at the G7.

On Monday, Macron will continue his high-level diplomatic meetings on home turf. Russian President Vladimir Putin is flying into Paris to visit the inauguration of an exhibition on the Tsar Peter the Great at Versailles which will provide a perfect photo opportunity to capture the two leaders shaking hands -- hopefully amicably -- with the famed building being used as a symbolic backdrop to demonstrate the historic ties between France and Russia.

Despite experts expecting tension over Syria and claims of Russian cyber attacks during Macron’s presidential campaign, the palace’s gilded and regal surroundings will no doubt make Macron, a communication king, look good. 

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