Trump and Macron are a study in contrasts

French president is enlisting Europe in his ambition to be the world's leading liberal voice

By Sylvie Kauffmann (Perspective)

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Published: Tue 23 Jan 2018, 10:08 PM

Last updated: Wed 24 Jan 2018, 12:10 AM

On the evening of January 20, 2017, the global elites meeting in Davos, Switzerland, for the annual World Economic Forum stopped chatting for a moment and turned to their screens to watch an inauguration speech being delivered 5,000 miles away, on Capitol Hill. They were horrified. The description by the 45th president of the United States of the "American carnage" that led to his election, and his promise of revenge, darkened the mood for the rest of the meeting.
France, meanwhile, was already in a somber mood. With a presidential election five months away, the political dynamics at play seemed quite similar to the American situation: a rise of populism and nationalism, a decline of liberal forces, anger from those left behind, a backlash against globalisation. In France, President François Hollande had decided not to run for a second term, fearing an ignominious defeat. Marine Le Pen, on the far right, loomed large.
What a difference a year makes. This week, US President Donald Trump is coming to Davos, in flesh and blood, to explain his "America First" agenda on January 26 to the despised elites gathered here. He will not be the only star, though. President Emmanuel Macron, who defeated Le Pen, will have spoken on January 24, offering a countermodel for the West.
Although both are described as mavericks, President Trump, 71, and President Macron, who turned 40 last month, are very different political animals, and their rivalry is fascinating to watch. The most striking difference is the impact they have made so far on the international scene.
The American leader is deliberately presiding over a retreat from global leadership by the United States.
Macron wants to be a global leader but is painfully aware that France, despite its status as a nuclear power with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, cannot compete. So he is enlisting Europe in his ambition. In President Trump's view, America will become great again by withdrawing from the world. In President Macron's view, France can be great again only by making Europe a global actor.
The two presidents' speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in New York last September also revealed opposite views of the international order. This divide between Trump's unilateralist agenda and Macron's European faith in liberal values, multilateralism and an open world had only widened.
Now, they represent two camps within the Western world: a camp of nationalist leaders, which includes a handful of Trump followers inside the European Union, and a camp of internationalists, gathering most of Europe's heavyweights around President Macron and Germany's chancellor, Angela Merkel. Thanks to Trump's clumsiness, Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain has joined the latter camp, even while negotiating Brexit.
Why similar domestic political dynamics produced such different effects is very much a question of electoral mechanics. Under America's Electoral College system, Trump could beat a candidate who won the popular vote by a majority of three million, while France's two-round system never gave Le Pen a chance. It opened the way to Macron's victory, which was confirmed six weeks later by a resounding majority in parliamentary elections. Trump's erratic debut at the White House, coupled with the shock of the Brexit referendum, also made French voters think twice before taking the nationalist direction.
So here we are, on both sides of the Atlantic, governed by two unique specimens, born of electoral upsets, disrupters of exhausted political systems enjoying large constitutional presidential powers. The two men may pretend to enjoy a warm relationship. They may even think they do, based on their common imperative of fighting terrorism. Yet the way they exercise power and the policies they promote keeps them apart.
Trump, who campaigned as a populist and rules as one, is accused of diminishing the American presidency. His compulsive tweeting habits, betraying a limited vocabulary, aim to bypass the mainstream media that he loathes; he watches TV, doesn't read books, takes a lot of time off.
Macron, as soon as he was elected, reverted to a quasi-monarchical presidential role. His goal, he explained, was to restore authority and dignity to an office that had been weakened by his predecessors Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande. His Twitter line is kept strictly to official announcements. He communicates through 90-minute speeches and lengthy interviews studded with references to philosophers, archaic words and refined grammar. He doesn't think much of French journalists; he would obviously rather control them if he could, instead of just attacking them as "failing." He is a true workaholic and makes it known that his nights are short.
The two leaders do have a few things in common. They are both lucky - and in politics, luck matters.
The American president enjoys buoyant economic conditions, part of a global economic surge; similarly, his French counterpart has benefited from an upswing in the eurozone. They both managed to pass, in their first year, a tax reform criticised by their opponents for mostly benefiting the wealthy and intended to convince the corporate world that they are on its side. But neither conforms to a classic ideological line; pundits in their respective countries struggle to define Macronism or Trumpism.
Still, there is one glaring difference: The approval ratings of President Macron, unlike those of President Trump, are on the rise. Polling experts in France say their president, having realised that it would be difficult to regain voters' confidence on the domestic scene at this early stage of his reforms, has been trying to win it through principled stances and activism on the world scene. In the United States, polling experts note that despite a booming economy, President Trump struggles to raise his approval ratings from levels lower than those of any of his predecessors in their first year in office.
It is still early in their terms. Keep watching this competition. Much of the future of the liberal democratic West will depend on these two mavericks' fortunes.
-Project Syndicate
Sylvie Kauffmann is the editorial director and a former editor-in-chief of Le Monde

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