French President Emmanuel Macron is in Washington this week, meeting with Donald Trump—the man he has been trying to woo since the French election last year—and speaking to Congress. Macron, a former Socialist minister, struck out on his own when he ran for president, creating a centrist platform (En Marche!) and triumphing over Trump’s favorite, Marine Le Pen, and more establishment figures. In office, he has pursued an ideologically eclectic agenda, including reforms of the French state (e.g., its railways) that have enraged much of the left, as well as a determined effort to convince Trump to moderate on Iran and global warming. So far, he doesn’t have much to show for his efforts on the latter front.
To discuss Macron’s visit and his presidency, I spoke with Arthur Goldhammer, a senior affiliate at the Center for European Studies at Harvard University and the translator of 125 books. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed Macron’s complicated standing in France, why he thinks he can charm the president, and whether the two men actually share similar leadership styles.
Isaac Chotiner: Do you understand Macron’s Trump strategy, and do you think it’s working in any noticeable way?
Arthur Goldhammer: I thought I understood it at the beginning. I think Macron’s position was that the United States is an unavoidable reality in today’s world and Trump is the president, so one has to deal with him, and that it was better to deal with him by trying to approach him in terms that he might understand. That would require some degree of friendliness, however feigned. I thought that was probably the correct approach to take when he first invited Trump to France. I don’t think he’s obtained much in return for that, but Macron has great confidence in his ability to win people over. He thinks that he’s very persuasive. He’s always made use of older powerful figures in his own career and I think he views Trump in the same way, as someone who might be useful and who can be approached in no other way but through flattery.
What does Macron want most from Trump?
He needs outside help to succeed with the crucial part of his reform program, which is reform of the European Union. Now, Trump is not going to be very helpful in that score. Trump has no understanding whatsoever of the European Union, but Trump is capable of putting some pressure on Germany. If Macron can convey to Trump what concessions he would like out of Germany, there’s some possibility that in one way or another, Trump might be helpful. I confess I don’t really see what the play is there, but I think that’s one thing he may have in mind.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, I think we saw in the case of Syria what he thinks he can get from Trump. France has been spoiling for some kind of action against Assad since François Hollande had the planes ready to go because he thought that Obama was going to respond when the “red line” was crossed. Then Obama withdrew. Not just Hollande or Macron, but the entire French foreign policy establishment was very upset by that move by Obama. They’ve been spoiling for some retaliation against Syria. Trump gave them the opportunity. They could not mount such an attack without U.S. support, so in that respect he has gotten at least one thing from Trump.
Now on the Iran nuclear deal, France would like to preserve the deal. I think Macron is going to make a last ditch effort on this visit to try to persuade Trump that it’s worth preserving. My own hunch is that with [John] Bolton in place, that is a lost cause. On climate, I think that was something that Macron broached in the Paris meeting with Trump and he got nowhere.
There have been a couple articles implying that Macron, while not a Trumpian figure in any way, has—and I don’t want to use the word authoritarian because that’s too strong—certain tendencies, that he loves wielding power, that he sees himself as embodying France in some way, and that the two men are somewhat similar. What do you think of that theory?
My friend James McAuley had a piece in the Washington Post [that argues this]. I think that’s quite wrong. I think Macron does see himself in the lineage of Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. He thinks that the French state can be governed in no other way except by a strong executive. That the Fifth Republic was created expressly for de Gaulle, and its constitution is built around a strong president. A president who rules in conjunction with the bureaucracy and not with the legislature. The legislature is really there only to give advice and serve as a sounding board and that the government does not work without a strong executive.
Going deeper than that, the whole French political tradition since the revolution has incorporated some degree of suspicion of democracy. That democracy has to be kept in check by a government that is constantly active. So in that sense, Macron is the true heir of the tradition of all strong French leaders. I think you’re right to avoid the word authoritarian, but a strong executive is what he believes and many other French political observers and theorists believe is necessary in a very contentious society like the French.
I think it has nothing whatsoever in common with Trump. He’s not appealing to nativist instincts, he’s not trying to mobilize one segment of society against another. But he is mobilizing the state in order to affect the reforms, both economic and social, that he considers absolutely necessary.
He has been getting tough on migration and continued the anti-terror measures from the Hollande administration after the ISIS attacks in France. What do you think of what he’s done there, and do you not feel like he’s appealing to nativism at all?
I don’t think he’s appealing to nativism. I think he has looked at what’s happened in Germany, where there was no far-right party and where massive immigration has created a rather strong far-right party out of nothing. Therefore he believes tighter border controls are necessary to keep the far right, which has long existed in France, under control. In my view he’s gone somewhat too far with the emergency measures: They’ve now been incorporated into French law and are going to be perpetuated. They’re no longer emergency measures that need to be renewed periodically, and I think that was a mistake and a threat to constitutional rule.
The reason that Macron has taken these steps, I believe, is as a counter to the far right. I think he also feels that the left has been too soft on this matter, that some degree of control of borders is necessary in the modern world. The numbers of people who are threatening to leave Africa and come to Europe are really in excess of what Europe can absorb.
Now, on the other hand, I would argue that Macron has not made nearly as much of an effort to integrate immigrants as Germany has, and he should be criticized for that. He’s trying to walk a fine line. I think he sometimes erred and crossed over that line, but his intentions are honorable.
How well do you think he is succeeding in trying to reform the French state?
He’s succeeding in that he’s mastered the mechanics of government. He operates all the levers of government with great skill, which is remarkable in somebody who’s never held elective office at any level, let alone the highest level. He’s done that in part by reaching out to the bureaucracy in which he has worked.
It’s been a very skillful first year. He has managed to enact an astonishing number of reforms. He’s initiated much more legislation than Hollande did in a similar period of time. So, in terms of sheer statecraft, I think he’s demonstrated his competence. He’s also a very good communicator.
Do you think the reforms are likely to work?
The reforms that he has undertaken are essentially a set of supply-side structural reforms of the economy, liberalizing the labor market, opening the national railway to competition, rejiggering the tax system to alleviate the burden of taxes on corporations, a cut in the wealth tax, which is supposed to spur investment. All of those things are intended to get the economy moving, but they’re kind of a standard supply-side set of nostrums. Although the diagnosis has some merit, it’s not really what the European economy needs. What the European economy needs is some rebalancing at the European level, a reduction of Germany’s current account surplus, recycling of some of that surplus into other European countries, more infrastructural investment financed by borrowing at the European level, mutualization of the European debt. All of those things require cooperation from other European countries. And it may be that Phase 2 of Macron’s reform is to try to get Germany to go along with that, but the results of the German election make it very unlikely that he’s going to get any of that.
If he doesn’t get those things, then the supply-side reforms that he is executing rather efficiently in France are not going to produce the results that he’d hoped. If that happens, then some of these social movements that have erupted in opposition to what he’s attempting at home may coalesce and form an actual opposition against him. At the moment, he’s helped by the fact that there’s really no organized opposition. The various protest movements are scattered over a variety of fronts and they haven’t really come together.
What do you think the French are going to make of him coming here and probably fawning a bit over Trump?
There will be a lot of criticism at home because Trump is widely disliked in France, and I think part of Macron’s attempt to emulate de Gaulle—that he’s personalized the presidency to an unusual degree—well, in some respects the French like that, and in other respects they don’t, and I think they’ll find the publicity that he gets in the United States a form of personalization of the presidency that they don’t particularly like.
If you think Slate’s election coverage matters…
Support our work: become a Slate Plus member. You’ll get exclusive members-only content and a suite of great benefits—and you’ll help secure Slate’s future.Join Slate Plus