French President Emmanuel Macron might have hoped to focus this week on what may prove the biggest domestic test of his leadership, as France’s Constitutional Council prepares to rule Friday on whether or not he can push ahead with controversial pension reforms.
Instead, he finds himself grappling with international blowback from last week’s friendly visit to China – and in particular from comments that have made him rather unpopular both in Washington DC and with some of his allies in Europe.
On his flight home from Beijing, Macron gave an interview to POLITICO Europe. In it, he said that Europe must not become “just America’s followers” when asked about the prospect of China invading Taiwan.
“The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction,” Macron said, adding that Europe must not get “caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
Strategic autonomy is a Brussels term that refers to the EU having an independent geopolitical policy, which relies in part on the bloc being able to become a third power and not get squashed between the US and China. However, the China hawks, typically in Eastern Europe, have always been skeptical of anything that puts clear water between Europe and the US, who they see as the ultimate protectors of European territory through NATO.
Macron has since attempted to downplay his comments, saying on Wednesday that France was “for the status quo in Taiwan” and that position “has not changed.” But the hawks have already hit back.
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said: “Instead of building strategic autonomy from the United States, I propose a strategic partnership with the United States.” Lithuania’s foreign minister tweeted “We are capable of defending Europe without Chinese help. Instead of requesting assistance we should be projecting our strengths.”
Eastern European diplomats have been less subtle. One said that Macron is “simply tone deaf to everything happening in the world. No wonder Macroning has become a synonym of bullshitting without any result.” Another said they “cannot understand” Macron, that his visit to Beijing and remarks on Taiwan were “not helpful” and that Europe should engage with countries that “value democracy and the rule of law” over China.
Macron’s trip was further undermined when Beijing performed military rehearses encircling Taiwan the day after he left China.
Risks to US ties
European diplomats and officials say that while Macron doesn’t speak for Europe and that the 27 EU member states have all agreed on an approach to China, they are aware that his comments – and, they believe, attempts to present himself as the EU’s leader – could cause Europe real problems with the US, particularly in terms of European security.
And they’d be correct. Multiple US government sources told CNN that while they are aware that Macron indeed doesn’t speak for all of Europe, they are concerned that his words make it much harder to make the case for a strong transatlantic alliance to lawmakers in DC.
Case in point: Florida Senator Marco Rubio posted on Twitter shortly after Macron’s comments were published, suggesting that if Macron “speaks for Europe” then maybe the US should focus on its objectives and let “you guys handle Ukraine and Europe.”
The US government sources said Macron’s comments would only add to the skepticism some Republican lawmakers have about open-ended financial support to Ukraine, and fear the remarks could even contribute to a decision to block or curtail such funding. Worse, the sources also fear it could disrupt NATO unity – which has been remarkably strong since the start of the Ukraine crisis – if countries start unilaterally undermining the priorities of others.
A European government official who was at NATO headquarters for a meeting last week said there was broad agreement among the allies, including France, that Taiwan and security in the Indo-Pacific region was of crucial importance to the alliance. They were surprised to see Macron’s comments so soon after that meeting.
For all that Macron’s comments could be put down to a president under pressure at home doing things on the world stage to create a distraction, his comments on Taiwan have done real damage to the fragile transatlantic relationship.
It might not have been his intention, but Macron’s comments have come at a yet unknown cost. And meanwhile, at home, he still faces a serious political crisis.
His proposal to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64, which was pushed through parliament without a vote, caused violent protests and nationwide strikes.
The reforms include other cost-cutting measures and are, Macron’s government says, essential in preventing the pension system from collapsing. Social reforms like this were central to his 2022 re-election campaign. If they are blocked by the Constitutional Council, it will be a huge embarrassment for Macron.
“Even if he gets his way, even if he sacks his prime minister, Macron has taken a huge political hit and it’s hard to see how there won’t be even more protests,” says Aurelien Mondon, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. “He has always wanted to lead as the all-powerful, sole leader of France. Whatever goes wrong, it’s on him.”