Macron Is Going Full De Gaulle

France’s president is pushing around Britain, Germany, and Italy—and going back to his country’s foreign-policy roots.

French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a portrait of former French President Charles de Gaulle at the city hall in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, France, on Oct. 4, 2018. (Vincent Kessler/AFP/Getty Images)
French President Emmanuel Macron looks at a portrait of former French President Charles de Gaulle at the city hall in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, France, on Oct. 4, 2018. (Vincent Kessler/AFP/Getty Images)

In the case of Emmanuel Macron’s official presidential photograph, a picture is worth not a thousand but quite literally hundreds of thousands of words. The photo shows Macron flanked by the French and European Union flags and an opened book on the desk behind him. Though the title is not shown, Macron made it known that the book was none other than the memoirs of Charles de Gaulle.

In the two years since the photograph was snapped, Macron has tried to portray himself to the French, as well as portray France to Europe and the rest of the world, as de Gaulle once did. Those efforts—specifically, Macron’s dealings with Germany, Italy, and Britain—have recently become more pronounced. They have also become more successful.

For nearly half a century, every president of the Fifth Republic has had to define his politics and policies in relation to the man who founded it. This is especially true with what, in effect, was de Gaulle’s raison d’être for the new republic: the ability to undertake what he called grands travaux, or great projects, on the world stage. For this reason, Macron did not hesitate to make his position clear on France’s position in the world: Apart from the Gaullist François Fillon, Macron cited de Gaulle’s name more often than any other presidential candidate in 2017. More specifically, in an interview he gave between the two rounds of the presidential election, Macron fully embraced what he called the “Gaullo-Mitterrandist” approach to foreign affairs.

While Hubert Védrine may not have coined the clunky term, he certainly popularized it. Having served as the Socialist president’s diplomatic advisor, then as foreign minister to Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, Védrine appreciates the ironic coupling of François Mitterrand’s name to that of his ideological and political nemesis. Yet he also argues for its accuracy: For both the traditionalist de Gaulle and socialist Mitterrand—and, for that matter, the conservative Jacques Chirac—foreign policy was based on three irreducible values: sovereignty, independence, and strategic autonomy.

According to Védrine, this came to an end with Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Though dissimilar in so many ways, both of these presidents adopted what Védrine calls a neoconservative foreign policy, which placed a greater emphasis on the protection of human rights in France’s dealings with other countries, and the so-called right of intervention when foreign governments flout those rights (which corresponded with a closer relationship to the United States and Western military alliances such as NATO). The pinnacle of this approach—or nadir, depending on one’s perspective—was NATO’s intervention against the Libyan regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi, an effort largely initiated at Sarkozy’s vocal insistence.

Macron, for his part, has always insisted on the difference between the Gaullist and Atlanticist positions—and on the superiority of the former. In an interview with several European newspapers shortly after becoming president, he announced: “I will bring to an end the form of neoconservatism that has been imported to France over the past 10 years.” Rejecting the U.S. attempt at nation building in Iraq, Macron concluded: “Democracy cannot be imposed from the outside without the participation of the people. France was right not to participate in the war in Iraq and was wrong to go to war in this manner in Libya.”

His domestic reform agenda having recently stalled in the face of popular discontent and an increasingly radical yellow vest movement, Macron has had ever more incentive to focus his energy, and Gaullist impulses, on foreign policy. This has become most apparent on the European stage.

In the case of Germany, Macron continues to build on the foundation laid by de Gaulle. Last month, he met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in the border city of Aix-la-Chapelle to mark the 56th anniversary of the historic treaty signed by de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer. While the treaty’s spirit reflected Merkel and Macron’s desire for greater collaboration, its letter reflected a Gaullist emphasis on sovereignty and independence. For example, it ignored the demands made by a number of German political leaders that France transfer its permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council to the European Union, instead vaguely plumping for a larger German role. Meanwhile, Macron’s government also forcefully spoke out against Germany’s Nord Stream gas pipeline project with Russia, which has long been controversial among Eastern European countries but which had previously seemed to have France’s tacit approval. Macron, in Gaullist fashion, seems to have sensed the pipeline was an easy opportunity to increase France’s influence at Germany’s expense.

This same reflex has shaped France’s response to the burgeoning Brexit drama. Last summer, Prime Minister Theresa May visited Macron at the French presidential retreat of Fort de Brégançon in the hope of winning his support for her Chequers plan. Her hopes melted as quickly as sorbet under the southern sun, however, when Macron did not even bother to schedule a news conference at the end of the visit. At the end of the EU summit meeting in Salzburg, Austria, last September, May no doubt wished that Macron would have once again nixed a press conference. Instead, the French president, in what the pro-Brexit tabloid the Sun described as a “vicious rant,” declared the British must now come to terms with the fact that “those who said you can easily do without Europe, that it will all go very well, that it is easy and there will be lots of money, are liars.”

In a curious way, Macron is re-enacting de Gaulle’s hostility to Britain. Just as the latter repeatedly rejected Britain’s repeated moves to enter the European Economic Community, the former has repeatedly reminded the Brits of the costs of moving out of the EU. Gnashing his teeth in the wake of Salzburg, one British government source muttered that Macron and his team “just say no to everything and, by a mile, are the most difficult ones,” while another echoed that the French had been the most “disobliging” nation during the multilateral negotiations.

Such complaints from the British would have warmed the general’s heart. So, too, would have Macron’s increasingly strident war of words with the Italian government. Led in principle by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, the government is, in fact, controlled by its two deputy prime ministers, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio. The former is the leader of the anti-immigrant League, the latter is the head of the anti-government Five Star Movement, and what they mostly share is a taste for baiting and distaste for Brussels, particularly its approach to illegal immigration. As a result, when Macron warned against the spread of the “nationalist leprosy” shortly after the formation of the Italian government, Salvini asked that Macron “stop insulting Italy and act on the generous words that fill his mouth.”

It’s been downhill ever since, with Di Maio urging on the yellow vest protestors, Salvini encouraging the French to replace their “very bad president,” and Macron dismissing these barbs as “utterly without interest.” However, Macron took a sharp interest last week when Di Maio, without first consulting with the French government, made a lightning visit to France in order to meet with a group of yellow vests in order to discuss common interests. An outraged Macron recalled his ambassador to Italy, and what had been a shouting match has now morphed into a full-fledged diplomatic crisis.

Here, too, the general’s shadow looms. In 1945, as the head of liberated France’s provisional government, de Gaulle very nearly annexed the Aosta Valley region in northern Italy. His reasons were both punitive—Fascist Italy’s last-minute invasion of southern France in 1940 still rankled—and strategic. But as the historian Pierre Guillen argues, de Gaulle was also “marked by the French tradition of regarding Italy as a second-class power. Notwithstanding the sincerity of his declarations on the solidarity of Latin peoples … he considered Italy just one element in an ensemble over which France was to play a leading role.”

While the individuals and issues on the European stage have changed over the past half-century, Macron believes, like de Gaulle, that France must play a leading role, this time in fending off the forces of populism and illiberalism. Whether he is up to the task remains to be seen. But it should be noted that, along with de Gaulle’s memoirs, one of the other books on the desk in his official photograph is Stendhal’s The Red and the Black—the story of Julien Sorel, a young man who scales the heights of power only to fall at the very end.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.