Macron’s Foreign Gambles Are Making Some French Diplomats Uneasy

Emmanuel Macron is facing growing unease from some inside his administration over a foreign policy approach that has so far delivered more spectacle than substance.

The 43-year-old president has been flouting the advice of his diplomats ever since he took office and as he prepares to fight another election next year, the tensions are spilling across France’s foreign affairs apparatus.

A dozen officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced their frustrations with the president’s insistence on making high profile overtures to leaders like Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump that have often left him empty handed. One adviser from Macron’s team even accepted the president has got nothing from Putin, although the person insisted engagement with Russia is a strategy for the long term.

It’s not that the diplomats claim they could have persuaded Trump to stick with the Paris Climate Accord or Putin to back off in Ukraine, but they have regularly urged the president not to put France’s relative powerlessness on display with such public reversals. Both diplomats and ministerial advisers say that Macron’s office often ignores guidance on key topics, even after requesting it.

Most recently, the president lauded the decision to pull French nationals and Afghan staff out of Kabul early. Yet two officials with knowledge of the situation said his teams had initially pushed back when France’s ambassador to Afghanistan, David Martinon, urged them to start preparations for the evacuation back in December. While the diplomats insisted the situation on the ground would deteriorate, Macron’s aides said they were exaggerating and, in private, criticized Martinon for fostering panic, one of the officials said. The ambassador didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

After ever-more-alarming warnings from the officials in Kabul, the president backed down in January and agreed to put in place arrangements to extract more than 600 Afghans and to downsize France’s diplomatic presence.

Macron himself has publicly highlighted the success of the operation. “I’m very pleased with it,” he said at a recent Dublin press conference.

“I fully trust my diplomatic team and the way it works with the European and Foreign Affairs Ministry,” the president said in a statement relayed by his press office when asked to comment on tensions with the foreign service.

While the French system grants the president full control of foreign policy, decision-making has traditionally taken more account of guidance from outside the presidential bubble, and the Foreign Ministry in particular. Officials say Macron is often more determined to go it alone than his predecessors were and has repeatedly sidelined members of his own cabinet, despite having only limited experience of international affairs when he took office.

“You can’t blame Macron for trying,” said Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “But you can blame him for not understanding France’s limitations.”

The president is vulnerable domestically with polls suggesting that next year’s rematch with the far-right Marine Le Pen could be much closer than their 2017 contest. To claim a second term, he’ll need to persuade moderates to rally around him in the runoff, and his heavy top-down approach may reinforce a perception that he is arrogant and patronizing.

Michel Barnier, a former Brexit negotiator turned presidential hopeful, said in a recent radio interview that Macron’s foreign policy has left France isolated and lacks humility.

Macron did seal a historic agreement with Germany to raise common debt in Europe to weather the coronavirus pandemic. He got the Iranians to attend the 2019 Group of Seven meeting in Biarritz. And he has maintained an international role for France that is out of proportion with its economic weight. His advisers insist that he has often been able to bring disparate players to the table and is working for the long term.

But, the list of unrealistic goals is getting longer, the diplomats said. That risks undermining Macron’s credibility, just as he is trying to persuade other leaders of Europe that he should be the new center of gravity after Angela Merkel steps down following this month’s German election.

Indeed, Macron set out to secure an early cease-fire in Gaza earlier this year, but the French text never made it to the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. threatened to veto it. His plan to end the 10-year Libyan conflict petered out. He hasn’t changed NATO, after calling the alliance “brain dead.” And his call to establish a UN-controlled secure zone in Kabul was dropped within a day.

Macron’s teams also opted not to follow his diplomats’ recommendations for communicating France’s secular constitution to Muslim countries, according to one senior official. When the president’s more combative approach blew up, his team was forced into crisis mode and the president had to write a newspaper article explaining his position.

Macron largely shut the diplomatic service out of his efforts to lead the international push to help Lebanon respond to a devastating explosion in Beirut last year, dispatching various personal envoys to the Lebanese capital instead of foreign ministry representatives.

One of France’s most experienced ambassadors felt side-lined after sitting down with a senior Lebanese politician on a recent visit to Paris, according to one official with knowledge of the situation. The two were engaged in a lively conversation about the country’s transition when the politician’s telephone rang. It was an adviser of Macron, calling to discuss exactly the same topic.

The Lebanese figure immediately lost interest in the ambassador and since then has abandoned the usual diplomatic channels to deal directly with Macron’s aides. But French efforts to persuade the Lebanese elite to kickstart a political change have made little progress.

The next source of tension for Macron may be what to do about France’s presence in the Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa.

Some 5,000 French troops have been helping to contain Islamist insurgents in the region since 2014, in the biggest overseas deployment for the EU’s leading military power.

Macron has said the operation will end next year but watching the fallout from the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has focused his attention on the potential consequences of pulling out, one adviser added.

Opponents like presidential hopeful Xavier Bertrand are already questioning the wisdom of Macron’s decision. The Sahel could become an issue in the presidential election, said Caroline Roussy, a Paris-based researcher at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs.

“Macron and his teams wouldn’t want to see the kind of scenes we’ve seen in Afghanistan,” she said.

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