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OPINION: Macron's attack on Trump's nationalism was welcome but may prove unwise

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OPINION: Macron's attack on Trump's nationalism was welcome but may prove unwise
Photo: AFP
16:13 CET+01:00
The French president's speech in front of world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe was far more than just an attack on sulking Trump and puzzled Putin. John Lichfield argues that although it was courageous and indeed welcome, it may not have been a wise move given what's at stake both in France and Europe over the coming months.

Emmanuel Macron made a courageous speech before a global television audience to mark the centenary of the World War One armistice at the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.

In most of the international press, his words – “nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism” – were heard as an attack on the “America First” rhetoric of President Donald Trump, sitting sulkily a few yards away. Macron certainly had Trump in mind. He was also thinking of Vladimir Putin, sitting nearby with a look of puzzled choir-boy innocence. 

But Macron's speech was European and domestic as much as it was international. It was aimed as the resurgent nationalism in Poland, Hungary and Italy, which threatens to de-rail the European Union. It was aimed at the Brexiteers in the United Kingdom. It was also aimed at the “France First” rhetoric of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leaders of France's ultra-nationalist Right and hard-nationalist Left.

The speech can be read on many levels but it was, in part, an opening salvo in Macron's campaign in the European Parliament elections next May. In that context, the speech can be said to have been “courageous” in the sense of British political comedy “Yes Minister” (see clip below)  – a bold but unwise advance into territory where the young French President is unlikely to succeed and may fall flat on his face.

 (In British political comedy series Yes Minister the central character Sir Humphrey Appleby says describing a decision as "controversial" means it will lose you votes but "courageous" means "this will lose you the election").

In many ways, the speech showed Macron at his best: willing to take on fundamental issues in eloquent language.

“By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.”

His defence of the European and international organisations whose treaties are written in the blood of two world wars was welcome and timely. Nothing of the kind was heard from senior British politicians during the otherwise moving Armistice centenary celebrations in the UK.

It was depressing, by the way, that Britain sent no senior representative to the Paris event, which was attended by 70 heads of state or government. No one should have expected the Queen or Theresa May to miss Britain's own ceremonies. But a senior Royal figure – Prince William or Prince Harry – could have been spared.

Instead, Britain sent David Lidington, the nominal Number Two in Mrs May's government, a man whose face is little known in Britain let alone the world. As a result, most French and global TV viewers thought that Britain had snubbed the main international ceremony to mark the end of World War One. They were given no reason to recall the fact that 700,000 British soldiers died on the western front in 1914-18.

'A personal crusade against nationalism to revive his flagging presidency'

Macron's performance was, I believe, ill-judged in a different way. There was nothing wrong with his words. What worries me is his scarcely-disguised intention to use the Armistice centenary to launch a personal crusade against nationalism to revive his flagging presidency.

The President's seven-day tour of battlefields last week became an uneasy mixture of remembrance and daily politics. He has already made it clear that he intends to fight in the front-line trenches of next Spring's European election campaign, something unprecedented for a head of government, let alone a head of state. He has even hinted that he will campaign outside France.

His commitment to the European Union and fear of  nationalism are no doubt sincere. But Macron has also calculated that the defence of Europe and a post-Merkel accession to the de facto “leadership” of the EU are themes which might restore his political fortunes.

Both his main domestic opponents, Madame Le Pen and Monsieur Mélenchon, are nationalists who scare the middling ranks of French voters. The old centre-right and the old centre-left have all but collapsed. Macron, with a 29 per cent approval rating, is reminding voters that, come the next presidential election, they will have a choice between himself and the extremes.

The problem is his chosen battleground – the European elections – is the worst possible terrain on which to defeat resurgent nationalism. The low turn-out - 48 per cent in France last time – always favours extremes and punishes incumbents. Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National leads Macron's République en Marche in polls ahead of next year's European vote.

Macron promises to bring his eloquence and youth to the European cause. Instead he may damage it with his domestic unpopularity. His Arc de Triomphe speech was “courageous”, in both senses of the word.

 
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Leon - 12 Nov 2018 17:00
Boy, has the President got guts!
Go to it M Macron. It is great to hear a politician who is not mealy mouthed, and stands by his convictions.
This Brit is right behind you.
Pathetic - 13 Nov 2018 09:13
I second that! This American is right behind you M. Macron.
Nouveau - 15 Nov 2018 11:33
I wish my U.S. President would embrace the call of Mr. Macron. He won't of course and his rhetoric has its own peril that will be told later in history. Jimmy Carter and President Macron have a two things in common, both men took the high road regardless of political fall out. I personally would prefer to be known as a great man than a great President. Maybe Manuel is both.
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