How the American Media Misunderstand Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron attends an arrival ceremony with President Trump at the White House, April 24, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
His vision is one of tribalism — not national tribalism, but continental tribalism.

Emmanuel Macron is a master seducer. During his recent trip to the U.S., he pulled off a feat that would be impossible for any American politician — he secured praise from the American media outlets on both the left and the right.

While Trump’s close relationship with Macron generally fascinates the media, conservative commentators have been especially positive, since it seems to show an area of politics where Trump’s personality is an asset. Macron has capitalized on this to reach out to the Right: In an interview with Fox News, he remarked that he and Trump are similar, as they are both political outsiders. Macron even appropriated Trump’s MAGA slogan — he wants to Make France Great Again! Conservative pundits, rejoicing at Macron’s push for domestic free-market reforms, have claimed him as one of their own. Newt Gingrich wrote that Macron and Trump are both trying to “drain the swamp” in their respective countries. In this analysis, Macron is a friend of conservatism: He is a free-marketeer and has a “Greatness Agenda.” But it fails to take notice of Macron’s speech at the European Parliament on April 17, when he outlined his agenda to renew “European sovereignty.” As any reader of Hobbes’s Leviathan will know, more “European” sovereignty must mean less French sovereignty. The French people will have less power to elect representatives who can make and change the laws of their own country. Macron is less interested in French greatness, and more interested in European greatness.

Those writing on the left have caught on to the fact that Macron’s “Greatness Agenda” differs from Trump’s. After all, Macron supports the Iran deal and the Paris Agreement, embracing Obama’s legacy. When Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement, Macron’s social-media slogan was “Make Our Planet Great Again.” Addressing Congress, Macron established that he does not “share the fascination for new strong powers, the abandonment of freedom, and the illusion of nationalism,” in a thinly veiled critique of Trump. Macron’s April 17 speech gave further evidence of his anti-Trump credentials, as he claimed that America “is rejecting multilateralism, free trade, and climate change.” For challenging Trump in these terms, the New York Times’ Roger Cohen declared that “the world owes one to France, big time.”

But if the Left is looking for a champion of liberal universalism and openness, Macron is an odd choice. The reality is that he is interested in reinvigorating the European project as a distinctly European project, looking not outward but inward.

Journalists raised on post-1989 assumptions about the international order see the European Union as a perpetual force of global openness. For them, the EU is the quintessential agent of ever-expanding liberalism, encouraging its “four freedoms” — freedom of goods, services, persons, and capital — across the European continent and around the world. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it seemed like this was so. Under primarily German leadership, the EU brought the benefits of liberal markets to the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe, followed by the newly independent Baltic states. It expanded into Greece and the former Yugoslavia, planned to extend membership to Turkey and Ukraine, and considered free-trade agreements in North Africa and the Near East. This vision of the EU prioritized the integration of people and markets, and knew no fixed boundary. Any discussion about a natural geographic border to the European project — or even worse, a cultural border — was an embarrassment, and even a moral scandal. Like that awkward first verse of the German national anthem, talk of borders was suppressed. As Angela Merkel thought in 2015, Europe should have no real frontier.

Post-1989 journalists have been shocked to see that on nearly all these expansionist ambitions, this vision of the EU has run aground. Through stock references to Brexit and Trump, or Poland and Hungary, they blame recent political events for stalling that vision of ever-expanding free trade and for putting the liberal international order into jeopardy.

But in truth that vision of Europe was always in tension with another. This other vision did not judge the success of the EU by its capacity to bestow the blessings of liberal markets on more and more peoples not originally part of the common market. Instead, its success was about how it could deepen integration within the common market. Within that common market, the EU has increasingly understood its success in terms of its ability to extend a deeper, purer practice of liberalism into all the areas of life. To do so requires giving more powers to Brussels and deconstructing the member states. The political agenda is federalization within a fixed border.

Both Macron and Le Pen are protectionists, they just disagree about the level at which protectionist policies should be implemented.

This new vision, popular among the French elite and embodied in Emmanuel Macron, is therefore unabashedly insular. Since EU expansion to places like Turkey now sounds like a bad joke, and since the EU’s institutions have floundered since 2008, this new vision has the initiative. To promote his project of enhancing European sovereignty, Macron is much more comfortable with boundaries than the liberal universalist is. Macron argues for a vigorous reinforcement of the common European frontier. To strengthen that frontier, Macron’s proposes that more powers be turned over to Brussels: He argues for the creation of a common defense force and for pooling European resources for counter-terrorism efforts. He supports a common European budget and monetary fund and a finance chief to direct how that money be used.

In handling the problems of European economic competitiveness, Macron bears an uncanny resemblance to Marine Le Pen. When, during their presidential debate, Le Pen said she wanted a strong, interventionist French state to stand up to Chinese competition, Macron didn’t reply by defending open markets. Instead, he said that his goal was to strengthen the European Union to resist Chinese competition. Both Macron and Le Pen are protectionists, they just disagree about the level at which protectionist policies should be implemented. This was not mere campaign rhetoric: One of Macron’s priorities is to push for new capital controls in the EU, screening Chinese investment into Europe.

Macron’s vision of the EU is as a common market wary of foreign competitors and focused on internal purification. It must fool the post-1989 media to make it think that it is the same European project they so enthusiastically promoted following the fall of the Berlin wall. It succeeds through ignorance and a sleight of hand. Since few foreign media outlets acknowledge and debate the different visions of the European project that have been proposed since 1989 (let alone since 1945), many of these cheerleaders for global openness and liberalism have become cheerleaders for continental protectionism.

Media outlets are fond of characterizing contemporary politics as a struggle between the universal “globalists” and the tribal “nationalists.” A more accurate characterization of the struggle is as one between two kinds of tribalism. In defending Macron’s plans to intensify the EU’s federalism, the “globalists” mask their tribalism behind a rhetoric of openness. Rather than nationalist tribalism, they encourage continental tribalism. This does not oppose “America First” with “the Planet First” but with “Europe First.” Macron’s project is ambitious, and he knows how to make it sound attractive to the different camps within the American press. But his goals cannot be reconciled with genuine open markets, or with genuine self-government.

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