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

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.

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

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.

Member comments

  1. 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.

  2. I am replying to Tim because I am someone who understands what is at risk with regards to blaming a crime on any religion, especially if that religion is Muslim. I did read this article and feel as if the reporter 'editorialized" on the facts. He or she reported them. The response from the French officials and their comments are clearly focused on "terrorism" and their comments are, IMHO, biased but understandable. If the perpetrator did indeed shout " Allahu Akbar" during the attack, their conclusion would have some basis of merit, but, it is only a report, not a conclusion, by the author of the article. France is in the throws of a problem they have partially architected. The disconnection between the Muslim community and the Secular French ideal is a major challenge. This report however does not draw any conclusions but merely reports on the attack and the victims. Hopefully, a focus on the facts will uncover the perpetrators motives. But as he is dead, they will only ever be conjecture. The Muslim religion is not the perpetrator. The human being who made a choice to break the rule of humanity is. More people need to be working on how to resolve the disconnect between the secular and religious population. I'll keep praying for that. Rich  - 

    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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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.