Macron struts global stage, but is he influential?

Paris (AFP) –


French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear his ambitions to be remembered as a global statesman who shaped world events. But after a busy first year in office, how much influence does he actually wield?

Armed with bilingual tweets, endless selfies and his "France is back" catchphrase, savvy communications and endless travel have won Macron a reputation as Europe's most visible leader and a staunch defender of Western democratic values.

The 40-year-old centrist has forged an unlikely relationship with Donald Trump, launched air strikes against the Syrian regime and campaigned passionately for reforms of the European Union.

And despite his careful efforts to flatter Trump, the political upstart also used a trip to Washington last week to rail before Congress against the US president's "America First" agenda.

Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, described Macron's pragmatic approach to world affairs as "neo-realist".

"You deal with the world as it is, while at the same time making clear what you represent, including your values," he told AFP.

"He is the sole European leader who is able to speak substantively at the same time with Trump, Putin, Sisi, Erdogan," he added.

Despite back-slapping and jokes with Trump during his recent trip, however, critics say Macron came back from the White House with little to show for his efforts in terms of having swayed the president.

Macron himself acknowledged he had probably not managed to change Trump's mind on abandoning the hard-fought 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, and he has so far failed to coax the US back to the landmark Paris climate change accord.

Analysts are likewise sceptical that pleas from Macron and other European leaders will successfully stave off a trade war, despite a temporary EU reprieve from Trump's new steel and aluminium tariffs.

"The things that Macron wants him to do are things that it would be pretty difficult for Trump to accept without losing credibility with his populist base," said John Springford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform.

- 'Liberal white knight'? -

At home Macron is pushing through his pro-business domestic reform agenda, but opinion polls suggest more than 60 percent of voters are dissatisfied with their president after a year in office.

Abroad, with the US withdrawing internationally under Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May both politically weakened, some have asked if Macron wants to take on the mantle of leader of the free world.

"Many people, especially here in Washington DC, tend to see him as a white knight of the liberal world order who challenges Trump and populism," said Paul Zajac, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute on leave from the French diplomatic service.

Fresh from beating far-right leader Marine Le Pen to the presidency, Macron gave an indication of his plans for the world stage as early as his victory speech on May 7, 2017.

"Europe and the world are expecting us to defend everywhere the spirit of the enlightenment which is under threat in so many places," he said.

Since then he has waded into crises from Syria to Lebanon, rallied support for anti-jihadist troops in West Africa and announced conferences in Paris on everything from climate change to the war in Yemen.

Yet his influence abroad is hampered by his inability to find powerful leaders who share his agenda, analysts say.

"He's a liberal who's come to power in an illiberal age," said Springford.

- European 'Achilles heel' -

In particular, little has budged on the international issue closest to Macron's heart: his plans to deepen Europe with far-reaching reforms, including a eurozone budget and finance minister.

Heisbourg described the EU as Macron's "Achilles heel".

"It hasn't really got very far," Springford said of the reform drive, blaming a lack of enthusiasm in an increasingly eurosceptic bloc and -- crucially -- cooling support from Merkel after months of political limbo in Germany.

But while the stakes are high for Macron in Europe, Zajac played down the idea that what he is trying to do there is revolutionary.

French governments have operated for years on the assumption that a stronger EU means a stronger France, he said.

"He's not advocating for any sort of European federalism," he told AFP. "A lot of his goals are in tune with traditional French foreign policy."