PARIS—There was the moment French President Emmanuel Macron greeted President Trump with a kiss on both cheeks, French-style, prompting a Fox News commentator to explain that in France, that kind of thing is normal, even for men. There was the moment Trump pretended to brush dandruff off Macron’s shoulder during an Oval Office photo shoot. There was the unforgettable, amused, I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening look on Macron’s face when Trump said the Iran deal was terrible, end of story. There was the press conference where Trump, in television-game-show-host mode, said he might withdraw from the Iran deal, or might not and instead offer “a very large deal, maybe deal, maybe not,” and anyway stay tuned for his May 12 decision deadline. There was the weird photo of the two presidential couples planting a tree, and Melania Trump’s white, wide-brimmed hat.
And then there was the rousing, full-throated yet cool-headed speech Macron delivered Wednesday before a joint session of the United States Congress. During some 50 minutes interrupted by multiple standing ovations, he offered the most direct, sustained, here’s-what-you’re-getting-yourself-into takedowns of Trump’s worldview yet delivered on Planet Earth by the leader of an allied country. Not Planet B. Because, as Macron said in the speech, “let us face it, there is no Planet B.” This was a direct challenge to Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord, just as other parts of the speech directly challenged Trump’s threats to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. The speech was also a call in favor of democracy, freedom, cultural exchange, medicine, and science, and against fear-mongering, protectionism, unilateralism, and misinformation.
“I believe that against ignorance we have education; against inequality, development; against cynicism, trust and good faith; against fanaticism, culture; against disease and epidemic, medicine; against the threats on the planet, science,” Macron said. After the speech, one commentator on French television said that Macron, over the course of his three-day state visit—the first of the Trump presidency—had tried his best to bring the leader of the free world back into the fold of Western democracy. Welcome to 2018.
In substance, there was nothing new or groundbreaking in Macron’s speech. In style, it was a primer in how to clean the floor with your host—and how to do it elegantly, with a smile, drawing on Macron’s innate talent and the best special-ops debate skills an elite French education has to offer. Macron, the now-40-year-old boy wonder, was elected against all odds one year ago in what seemed like an upsweep of “hope not fear,” given the immigration and economic scaremongering of the far-right candidate he defeated. He is a man acutely aware of, and driven by, the urgency of the historical moment. “Today, the call we hear is the call of history,” Macron said in his conclusion. “This is a time of determination and courage. What we cherish is at stake. What we love is in danger. We have no choice but to prevail, and together we shall prevail.”
This is more than lofty rhetoric. The mood here in Europe these days is very worrisome. The transatlantic order is at risk, in part because of the Trump administration’s disdain for NATO and the United Nations. The European Union is weakening. Autocracy is on the rise in Eastern Europe. Structural unemployment seems intractable in Europe and won’t be helped if Trump starts a trade war. Homegrown terrorism remains a threat. Decisions taken in Washington land abroad, not least in Europe.
Macron’s speech also made clear how Macron is in many ways a transitional figure between the 20th and 21st centuries. He founded his République en Marche movement as an end run around France’s Socialist party, which has been crumbling along with the political and social order it once represented. Here in France, Macron is the young fresh face on an old country undergoing a generational shift. But as he addressed Congress and spoke of the need for multilateralism, it also seemed that Macron might actually represent the end of an era—the postwar order, a certain vision of the European Union and liberal democracy—rather than the beginning of a new one.
A week ago, two French journalists of the 1968 generation interviewed Macron on live television in France. In their aggressive questioning, and in calling the president “Emmanuel Macron,” as if he were a comrade, not a head of state, the two offered a “total lack of deference and a barrage of hostile questions,” Adam Nossiter wrote in The New York Times. But Macron has a remarkable command of the issues, and can calmly disarm any debate opponent. He won that debate. The cover of last week’s Charlie Hebdo had a drawing of the two journalists with bandages on their face, with the headline “Two Journalists Beat up by a Head of State in Central Paris.”
But it’s also true Macron faces growing hostility in France, despite his stardom abroad. For all his talk of multilateralism, he has a reputation for being imperious and unilateral, hence the nickname “Jupiter.” He passed a labor reform, one that makes it easier to hire and fire, by executive decree, not a parliamentary vote. There are lawyers who don’t like his proposed changes to the court system. There are emergency-room doctors furious at budget cuts, and emergency rooms that are strained because of a shortage of primary-care doctors. There are university students striking against changes that would make admissions policies more selective at French state universities.
While Macron depicts France as “start-up nation” and recently gave an in-depth interview to Wired magazine about artificial intelligence, France has been hit by rolling train strikes by workers upset at his plans to end lifetime employment guarantees for new railway hires and raise the retirement age for some workers. In this most symbolic struggle between 20th and 21st-century labor models, Macron will probably prevail. Union membership isn’t what it used to be—only about 11 percent of French workers are in unions today. Public opinion has not warmed in solidarity to the strikes. Tourism is suffering, and the City of Paris wants the railway to reimburse it for lost business.
This week’s cover of Bloomberg Businessweek showed Macron’s face with a to-do list: “1. Get Elected. 2. Impress Merkel. 3. Handle Trump.”—all crossed out, and then “4. Fix France. 5. Save Europe.” On the European front, too, he is struggling. Macron may have impressed Chancellor Angela Merkel, but he hasn’t prevailed over her. A Germany weakened by internal political divisions—largely over Merkel’s policies on taking in immigrants from conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa—has complicated Macron’s calls for greater European integration. All of this while he seemed, with his speech to Congress, to want to add another to-do item: “6. Save the World.”
As for the U.S. president, Macron may be the “Trump whisperer,” as my colleague Yasmeen Serhan wrote, but Trump doesn’t seem to listen to him, as my colleague Uri Friedman wrote. Will anything concrete come out of Macron’s visit to Washington? Did he manage to convince the United States to get back in the Paris Climate Agreement, or stay in the Iran nuclear agreement? Will Trump give Europe a break on the steel and aluminum tariffs that France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire said were a “sword of Damocles” hanging over Europe’s head? These are crucial questions, all unanswered as Macron’s state visit winds down.
Yet Macron’s speech in Congress itself was a kind of victory. It mapped out a clear vision, and made one point: Before acting, consider your backup plan.
Today, with the Syrian civil war now in its seventh year, with the arrival of millions of refugees from the Middle East reshaping Europe’s political map and contributing to a rise in far-right parties and sentiments, another French speech is worth revisiting: Dominique de Villepin’s 2003 speech to the United Nations, when he argued against invading Iraq, prompting calls to rename the French fries in the U.S. Capitol cafeteria “freedom fries.” “The authority of our action is based today on the unity of the international community,” de Villepin said then. “Premature military intervention will bring this unity into question, and that would detract from its legitimacy and, in the long run, its effectiveness. Such intervention could have incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region. It would compound the sense of injustice, increase tension, and risk paving the way to other conflicts.”
We’re now living in the midst of some of those other conflicts, and the French are again trying to steer the Americans down a different course of international unity and multilateralism. If de Villepin failed to change the mind of an American leader, Macron’s task may be even more daunting still. His speech called for nothing less than for Americans—the voters of the country that elected Trump—to renounce much of what Trump himself stands for.