Winston Churchill was once asked whether he thought that Charles de Gaulle was a great man. “He is selfish, he is arrogant, he believes he is the center of the world,” Churchill replied. “You are quite right. He is a great man.” Something similar might be true of Emmanuel Macron.
The French president, who is projected to be reelected for a second five-year term today, is certainly selfish, and arrogant, and seems to think that the world revolves around his own apparently endless brilliance and grandeur. His first term has been littered with moments of empty bravado and failure that in many cases have had far more to do with his promotion of his own interests than the truth. Remember Macron arriving in Lebanon like some Roman emperor restoring order to the provinces? Whatever happened to that mission? Or him lecturing a French youngster for daring to ask “Ça va, Manu?” instead of calling him Mr. President?
And yet, an animating idea remains nonetheless—a mission that gives his presidency purpose, marking it out as something different and interesting in a world of leaders characterized by drab managerialism and limited ambition.
Macron’s principal obsession is the creation of an independent “Europe” that France can turn into a vehicle to make itself great again. No crisis passes without a fresh Macron bid to advance this agenda, however absurd. In 2019, at the height of Donald Trump’s presidency, Macron sparked anger among his allies and joy in the Kremlin after warning that NATO was suffering a “brain death,” unable to confront the United States’ slow disengagement from Europe that was leaving the continent a geopolitical slave. Two years later, amid tensions over the supply of vaccines between post-Brexit Britain and the European Union during the pandemic, Macron intervened again to protect Europe’s interest by declaring—entirely incorrectly and without evidence—that the British-made AstraZeneca vaccine was “quasi-ineffective” for the elderly. And then, this year, as Russia lined up to invade Ukraine, Macron treated the world to another dose of his wisdom, warning that this was the time for Europe to establish its own dialogue with Russia, independent of the U.S.-led NATO.
On each occasion, Macron’s interventions were in turn astonishingly impercipient, wrong, or ignored. It is also perfectly reasonable to look back over his first term and be depressed by its lack of any real achievement. In Europe, despite grand plans to reinvigorate the EU by giving it the tools to deal with future crises of the sort that crippled its single currency in 2011, it is far from clear that Macron has managed to change much. At home, despite promising la rupture with the past, making France more dynamic and attractive for investment, he was forced to abandon some of his reform agenda amid an outburst of public anger, the gilet jaunes movement. The result of everything is that Macron is an extraordinarily divisive figure in France, loathed by swaths of the public far more intensely than even the unpopular former presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
How, then, might he come to be considered a great president, and even one of the great European statesmen of our age?
Part of the problem with assessing contemporary leaders such as Macron is that we tend to compare them not with real-life predecessors but with simplified myths. Thus, de Gaulle is not the flawed, arrogant, and monarchical figure that he was, but simply the prescient and heroic leader we now know. Perhaps the best example of this effect, though, is from across the channel, in Britain: Margaret Thatcher.
The story most people know about Thatcher is that she was the “Iron Lady,” who did not turn. She stood up to the Reds in Moscow, to the bureaucrats in Brussels, to the fascists in Buenos Aires, and to the socialists at home. In so doing, she transformed her country, for good or bad. When we look at today’s leaders, whether Joe Biden, Boris Johnson, Olaf Scholz, or Macron, it is hard not to see only tentative, incremental change; political ducking and diving; and unheroic calculation. Yet this is exactly what marked Thatcher’s time in office too—as well as the deep public loathing that Macron suffers today.
The reality is that Thatcher’s premiership was marked not just by iron determination and ideological mission but by political pragmatism, incrementalism, diplomatic failure abroad, and widespread public loathing at home. For the first seven years of her premiership, she took Britain further into Europe, signing on to the Single European Act, one of the greatest transfers of sovereignty agreed upon by any British prime minister. During the Falklands crisis, she was prepared to negotiate with the Argentine junta but was rejected by Buenos Aires. Toward the end of her time in office, she agreed—under some duress—to tie Britain to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, the forerunner to today’s euro. A cold, hard look at metrics such as tax receipts, economic growth, and the size of the state at the beginning and at the end of her time in office reveals a far less revolutionary figure than is often portrayed. She changed Britain, of course, but not like some zealous Lenin.
Measuring Macron against the reality of previous political giants makes him look less small. He has successfully, if only partially, reformed France’s economy, reducing unemployment and making the country more attractive to international investment. With Angela Merkel gone and the unimpressive Scholz in her place, Macron is emerging as a clear leader within Europe, not unchallenged, but a vigorous and empowered champion of the EU.
Most fundamental of all, though, isn’t the simple fact that Macron is right?
Morally and strategically, Europe should raise its sights from its role as a junior partner in an American world. As one of the most developed places on Earth, it demands to be taken seriously, yet it is dependent on someone else’s military, currency, and technology, and buffeted by the whims of someone else’s electorate. Europe, as it stands, is like some kind of Schrödinger state: half real, half mirage. It is an economic bloc with genuine clout that is able to impose itself in the world. And yet it has almost no geopolitical depth, unable or unwilling to impose itself. It has enough political will to survive whatever existential crisis comes its way, but never enough, seemingly, to ensure that it does not face such crises to begin with. Its currency, debt sharing, foreign policy, and decision making are all riddled with obvious holes, but its members seem unwilling to fill them. Macron is right to demand that they do.
Of course it is too soon to judge whether Macron will be a success or a failure in his mission to reform France and reinvigorate Europe. Perhaps he will achieve one and not the other—or neither. Plenty of pitfalls could scupper his second term. But many figures far greater than Macron ended their career in failure, too, including Thatcher and de Gaulle.
Nevertheless, right now there is every chance that Macron could become the defining European figure of our age, eclipsing even Merkel, whose legacy is unraveling before our eyes. The French president is not as clever as he thinks he is. He is selfish; he is arrogant; he believes himself the center of the world. And yet, he may well become great.