Macron the Conqueror

France is back, thanks to a president committed to disrupting politics at home and abroad.

French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, west of London on Jan. 18. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron attends a ceremony at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, west of London on Jan. 18. (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images)

In advance of an Anglo-French summit this week, French President Emmanuel Macron officially offered to loan the Bayeux Tapestry to Britain. The tapestry depicts the campaign that culminated in the victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 of William the Conqueror —the duke of Normandy and later king of England — over Harold Godwinson, the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings. It suits the martial setting of the conference, to be held at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst near London, and its focus on Anglo-French defense cooperation.

More broadly, however, the loan of the tapestry is a fitting diplomatic gesture: It symbolizes who Macron is and what he wants to do at home and abroad.

William the Conqueror’s accomplishment was to create a new Anglo-Norman polity that has, more or less ever since, locked English politics into those of the European continent. That Macron is drawing attention to this historical truth is not necessarily meant as a rebuke of Brexit, so much as a powerful reminder that a millennium of linked history, ancestry, and culture goes deeper than the populist politics of the moment.

William’s own dual identity as an English king and a Norman duke is an implicit rebuke to the fetishizing of nativist identities promoted by the European populism of which Macron is the antithesis. It also speaks to Macron’s own political approach, which seeks to generate new political categories and possibilities. And it seems to be working. Eight months since he took office, he is polling at 53 percent approval at home (up by 9 percent in the past two months) and has confidently returned France to a central place in European leadership and the world stage.

Macron’s election campaign itself transcended the West’s inherited categories of left and right — categories forged on the anvil of the transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy. Macron recognized that these political coordinates no longer provide a coherent approach to the economic and social problems faced by deindustrializing Western states after many decades of rapid globalization and the rise of the information economy.

Of course, Donald Trump and the leaders of Brexit also saw this early and won political victories on that basis. But each movement proposes a different way out of the malady it commonly identifies. For Trump, it’s America first, which among other things means threatening to pull out of trade deals. For the Brexiteers, it’s the U.K. first, which means it’s all about new trade deals. But for Macron, it’s neither about rejecting globalization nor doubling down on it but carving a middle way between the two, one that proposes a strong France in Europe and a strong Europe in the world.

Domestically, Macron has trodden a broadly pro-market path, most notably in his major reform of French labor law in September 2017. But he has also made some protectionist excursions to fend off the populist threat, particularly in the temporary nationalization of certain shipyards threated by an Italian takeover, limited price fixing in agriculture, and a move against rules on EU “posted workers,” which allow companies to move employees around the EU single market without full compliance with local labor laws. It’s hard to measure political impact on the economy in only eight months, but French business confidence is clearly up.

On social policy, although he is liberal on issues such as marriage equality, he is conservative on immigration, most evident in his attempts to reduce the number of refugee asylum claims in France, which last year numbered more than 100,000. In a visit to the northern port of Calais this week, Macron delivered a tough message about the port city being a dead end for migrants seeking to get to the U.K.

With respect to the European Union, Macron’s oft-rehearsed slogan is “Une Europe qui protège les Européens” (“A Europe that protects Europeans”). The idea is that while he wants a broadly free market within Europe, he is skeptical of having the European market flooded with cheap goods from emerging markets such as China.

Macron may not get the kind of eurozone reform he wants in the short term, given general German resistance to closer fiscal integration, although the key here is how the ongoing German coalition negotiations go. Meanwhile, his project for closer defense integration will need to harmonize with NATO and work out what role, if any, the U.K. will have once it leaves the EU, which are both tricky questions, as we’ll see in the summit this week.

That said, Macron has been the most prominent European statesperson on the global stage since his election. His style of foreign policy is broadly multilateral, but his emphasis on shared values within Europe contrasts with his reluctance to preach about them to non-Western states. This broad, relatively ecumenical approach — standing up for European values while not forcing them on those beyond Europe — has given him the political capital to lead on genuinely global problems such as climate change.

He has led the pushback on the Trump administration’s view on climate change but has done so without alienating the U.S. president, who seemed to have enjoyed his trip to Paris. Likewise, he has firmly stood up to Russian propaganda but nonetheless stressed the need not to alienate Moscow. Similarly, on China, in a recent state visit, Macron took a clear line on trade, particularly on the idea that Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative needs to be a two-way street, not a one-way path for China to dump its goods into European markets — but he made no comment about China’s human rights record, avoiding what he called “loud speaker diplomacy.”

In the Middle East, Macron has taken a less binary view than the United States. He has signaled his desire to establish a closer relationship with Iran than any of his recent predecessors and gently pushed back on Saudi Arabia’s conduct over the blockade of Qatar and the coerced (and eventually rescinded) resignation of the Lebanese prime minister in the kingdom while at the same time maintaining a good relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

In Africa, France under Macron has extended its counterterrorism presence in the Sahel, building on the success of its operation in Mali. France has also taken a hard line in the United Nations against human trafficking out of Libya across the Mediterranean, in line with Macron’s effort to reduce refugee flows at home.

In the short term, what’s clear is that France is back in business at home and abroad and Macron has emerged as a major presence on the world stage.

But his ambitions have only just started. Ultimately, the loan of the Bayeux Tapestry symbolizes Macron’s sense of history. For historical re-enactment, or the prevention thereof, is the leitmotif of contemporary global politics. Both Brexit and the Trump movement, whether their leaders are really populists at heart, turned to populism to revive what they saw as a past golden age. Macron on the other hand sees the history of populism in Europe as exactly what his reform project is against. He aims to provide a serious alternative to populism in Europe if the EU itself is not to collapse in the face of its own inability to reform.

Macron sees the fundamental purpose of the EU not merely in material terms but as an answer to the identity politics that paved the way to war in 1914 and again in 1939. It is entirely fitting that he gave his major speech on Europe on Sept. 26, 2017, shortly after a right-wing populist party entered the German parliament for the first time since the end of World War II. Macron is right about the history. One can only hope he wins the argument.

Emile Simpson is a former British Army officer and the author of War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics.