A Besieged Macron Doubles Down on de Gaulle

To distract from runaway protests, the French president is making a show of independence on the world stage.

Protesters chant and sing songs against French President Emmanuel Macron
Protesters chant and sing songs against French President Emmanuel Macron during a rally in Paris on Dec. 10. Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

PARISAs France’s Emmanuel Macron confronts what may be a make-or-break moment for his presidency, he is wrapping himself even more snugly in the mantle of Charles de Gaulle.

Macron has long fashioned himself in the image of the Fifth Republic’s first president, whose very name connotes a particularly French political philosophy emphasizing domestic unity and a strong foreign policy. It is a strategy that has worked for many of Macron’s predecessors. But in a country where protest movements often rise up from the street, Macron is having a hard time making it stick: Many of his countrymen view their president’s high-minded rhetoric as distant, or worse, elitist. They call him “Jupiter.”

And now Macron is working even harder at going Gaullist. The French president, who gives every indication of being a sincere reformer, has an uncanny sense of timing. He came to power after founding his own political party and then benefited when the campaign of the mainstream center-right party fizzled out in scandal. Now he is taking advantage of another void: the vacuum left on the international stage by U.S. President Donald Trump, who is preoccupied with his impeachment and already given to isolationist tendencies. 

As civil strife rocks his country, Macron has been seen giving patriotic oratories at funerals for soldiers or rescue workers. Yet he has refused to speak publicly about what is on everyone’s minds: the nationwide strike that has snarled transportation, closed schools, and brought hundreds of thousands of government workers onto the streets. Instead, the French president has been practicing a particularly muscular brand of foreign affairs. 

To a certain extent, all of the Fifth Republic’s presidents have modeled themselves in the Gaullist tradition, said Justin Vaïsse, a French historian and director-general of the Paris Peace Forum, an independent nonprofit that he founded in 2018 with political support from Macron. Although the presidents haven’t all adopted the personal style of de Gaulle, who set the bar high for ringing oratory at his marathon press conferences, they have tended to emphasize France’s independence, influence, and grandeur.

Of course, historical comparisons are never exact. De Gaulle famously defined his foreign policy in opposition to the Anglo-Saxon world. In 1963, he opposed Britain’s entry into the European common market, the European Union’s predecessor. Three years later, he withdrew his country from the integrated military command of the U.S.-dominated North Atlantic Treaty Organization. De Gaulle did not want French officers reporting to foreign officers. 

Macron, the first French president to give interviews in English, in October described his British counterpart, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, as “a leader with genuine strategic vision” during discussions about Brexit.

Nor has Macron’s challenge to NATO been as extreme as that of de Gaulle. But he is pushing for a separate European army, which he views as compatible with NATO and the White House does not. One of Macron’s advisors recently compared the coexistence of a European army with NATO as having both cheese and dessert, a play on a typical French expression, “cheese or dessert,” which roughly translates as “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.”

But in true Gaullist fashion, Macron is making a big show of independence from Washington. During last week’s NATO gathering in London, Macron snubbed Trump by doubling down on his remark to the Economist a few weeks earlier that the military alliance was experiencing “brain death.” Soon after returning to the Elysée, the French presidential residence, he and German Chancellor Angela Merkel hosted a peace summit between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who is still awaiting an invitation from the White House. 

France has also been planning an environmental partnership directly with several state government leaders in Brazil’s Amazon region, bypassing the Brazilian president, who in August insulted Macron’s wife in a particularly testy exchange. 

Macron, meanwhile, has yet to speak publicly about the unrest inside France. At the recent gathering of NATO in London, he brushed aside a reporter’s question about the French strike, which was scheduled to start the next day. Speaking in French, he said the discussions at the NATO meeting were of such gravity and importance that he would not be taking questions on domestic matters. On the subject of the strike, he said he would address the French people directly, and from Paris. 

One week on, strikers are still blocking oil refineries, and traffic jams stretch hundreds of miles. The unions called for reinforcements on Wednesday after a presentation by the prime minister offering concessions to the public pension reform plan that is at the heart of the struggle. 

Unfortunately for Macron, the strike feeds into long-standing suspicions by many of his left-leaning compatriots that the former Rothschild investment banker has Anglo-Saxon, neoliberal tendencies. By digging in his heels and saying he will not forsake pension reform—as he did give up on a gas tax hike last year—he is evoking images of Britain’s Margaret Thatcher going up against Fleet Street and U.S. President Ronald Reagan taking on the air traffic controllers.

On the other hand, Macron is also a former economics minister under a Socialist Party government who says he identifies with neither the right nor the left in French politics. He founded his own political party, La République En Marche!, and campaigned as a financial reformer determined to make changes that he deemed necessary to make the country competitive with the United States and China.

Vaïsse sees certain parallels to the unrest that de Gaulle faced in 1968, although he describes the situation as far less extreme today. “Macron did not go to Baden-Baden,” he said, referring to an episode during the height of the May 1968 student uprising in Paris when de Gaulle briefly fled to Baden-Baden, Germany, in fear of a revolution. 

The comparison Vaïsse draws involves the strategy of the union leaders then and now. He said their goal was, and is, to convince the government that the unions are the serious interlocutor rather than the social movements led by the students in 1968 or today’s gilets jaunes, the yellow vest-wearing protesters who have been gathering at traffic circles across France for slightly more than a year. 

“The objective of the strike is to install a certain rapport de force, or balance of power, with the government for negotiations to come, and not to obtain something specific at this point,” Vaïsse said. “It is a sort of pre-emptive strike, to demonstrate you mean business and have the troops to fight.”

Julia Ficatier, a veteran independent French journalist, said this is often the way in France. “In the United States, the unions negotiate first and then hit the streets if they don’t get what they want,” she said. “In France, the unions descend on the streets and make the maximum noise, and then they sit down to negotiate.”

So far, the balance of public opinion is leaning somewhat in favor of the strikers. In a survey by the French pollster IFOP published on Sunday, 33 percent of respondents supported the strikers, with a further 20 percent expressing sympathy for them. It remains to be seen if this goodwill stands up after another massive nationwide demonstration on Tuesday, and as the transportation strike, labeled “unlimited,” drags on.

Public anger against “Jupiter” boiled over last year, right after Macron’s greatest act of political theater, when he hosted more than 60 world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Six days later, the first yellow-vested protestors were circling the same iconic monument demanding their president’s resignation. 

On the day of the centennial celebration, Thierry Laurent, a professor of French language and literature who has written a book about de Gaulle, said Macron was not nationalistic in the sense of de Gaulle. Instead, he thought that Macron wanted a stronger role for Europe in diplomacy and in its mutual self-defense. Reached this week for further comment, Laurent said he now agreed that there was something neo-Gaullist about Macron’s foreign policy. But, he added, the extremism of the political alternatives would most likely assure the president’s reelection in 2022.

What is less clear is whether Macron will be able to enact his sweeping financial reform agenda and assertive foreign policy if the strike drags on indefinitely. 

Le Journal du Dimanche, a popular Sunday newspaper here, summed up his challenge succinctly. On this week’s cover, next to superimposed images of the union leader Philippe Martinez and the French president, was the headline: “Who will give in?”

De Gaulle certainly would not.

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