What a difference a weekend makes. Emmanuel Macron emerged as the big beneficiary from the G7 summit, a junket that has come under increasing criticism as the shrinking group of leaders struggle to forge a consensus in the era of Donald Trump. Last week, the U.S. president’s tone on Twitter was aggressively anti-European Union – but by Monday he was full of praise.
Macron showed it was possible to manage an unruly Trump by welcoming him into the tent rather than just giving him the cold shoulder, thus avoiding the dire predictions of a “G6+1” – or even a “G5+2”, given U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s pro-U.S. and pro-Brexit leanings.
Rather than act like a tired imitation of de Gaulle, Macron positioned himself as a multilateral mediator. He chatted up the U.S. to get a compromise of sorts to avoid a trade war over France’s digital-services tax, flew in Iran’s foreign minister as a highly symbolic nod to the nuclear impasse, and played the climate-change card at the expense of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (The latter’s crude swipe at the appearance of Macron’s wife is only likely to bolster the French president’s standing among voters.)
It is hard to distinguish whether the bar was cleared because of the great diplomatic gymnastics on show or because it was set too low. The latter probably nudges it. Macron made clear ahead of time that this year there would be no traditional communique, something he described as a bothersome technocratic invention reminiscent of a bureaucratic deep state. Casting the G7 as an informal talking shop for leaders makes it hard to be characterized as a failure. The theater of the Iran visit wouldn’t have happened without at least a nod from Trump.
Still, Macron deserves credit for his recent string of diplomatic wins, especially at the European level: The G7 meeting rounds off his victories on Brexit, where he has managed to limit the concessions the EU has offered, and in Brussels, where he was able to impose his choice of candidate to lead the European Commission. Twitter clearly isn’t his weapon of choice – his rainforest photo last week was debunked as years out of date by French media – but he is clearly adept at opportunistic power grabs when the right situation arises.
These admittedly modest wins show that Paris has grabbed the microphone from Berlin and London to speak in the name of the EU. The content of Macron’s European visions may not have changed much since he was elected, but his ability to project his leadership is being helped by troubles elsewhere on the continent. Germany’s export engine is collapsing, Brexit is consuming British politics – but the Gilets Jaunes have largely been routed.
The main target for Macron’s global grandstanding will always be France itself, of course. His domestic approval ratings have yet to really recover from last year’s riots, standing at about 34%. Labor unions are threatening strikes as his reform agenda nears one of its biggest challenges: Overhauling the country’s pensions system. The next G7 already looks very far away.