Emmanuel Macron, the newly minted French president, stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at Versailles on Monday and made clear that he was ready to confront one of this century’s most aggressive strongmen. It was a move straight out of Putin’s own playbook — and one impossible to imagine President Trump making.
At a press conference, Macron was asked why some Russian journalists had had trouble getting access to his campaign during the election. The French president quickly drew a sharp distinction between journalism and propaganda.
“When news outlets spread despicable lies,” he said, “they are no longer journalists. They are organs of influence.
“Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik,” he continued, “were organs of influence during this campaign which, on several occasions, told lies about myself and my campaign. ... Russia Today and Sputnik did not behave as media organizations and journalists, but as agencies of influence and propaganda, lying propaganda — no more, no less.”
Then he went further. He said France was prepared to use military force if Syria used chemical weapons again. Echoing similar language from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron said he would be paying close attention to a recent wave of horrific violence against gay men in Chechnya.
So to recap: Macron basically sideswiped Putin with a live television takedown at an event that was originally billed as a reset for testy Franco-Russian relations. Macron bashed Russia’s use of fake news, criticized the country’s abysmal human rights record, and said he'd no longer stand by as Russia’s allies in Damascus used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians.
The press reacted as if he’d all but ripped open his suit and revealed a superhero costume, cape included.
Macron tears into Putin's sham propaganda machine, calling it what it is — while standing right next to Putin at a joint press conference https://t.co/X8FHASa9FN— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 29, 2017
Macron attacks RT and Sputnik as propaganda organizations to Putin's face pic.twitter.com/fIvtqQctJO— Mathieu von Rohr (@mathieuvonrohr) May 29, 2017
That’s in part because Macron wasn’t supposed to be good at this. The knock on the baby-faced new French president was that he was too new, too green, too inexperienced, too focused on the economy — and he had no foreign policy platform, and even less foreign policy experience. His big idea, on the campaign trail, was to strengthen the Franco-German relationship.
So it’s all the more striking that in his first tests on the world stage, Macron has positioned himself as a (democratic) strongman willing to join Germany’s Angela Merkel in standing up to Putin — and to Trump, with whom Macron had a handshake for the ages when the two men met in Sicily last week.
He’s got swagger befitting a man with twice as much experience, and a country with twice as much military power.
“He needed to project strength out of the box, he was seen as young, an ingenue and potentially weak,” says Jeremy Shapiro, director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “He needed to demonstrate strength immediately.” That’s a message Macron seems to have internalized, and then some.
That was clear in his remarkable press conference with Putin yesterday. But it’s not the only thing.
Macron refused to play footsie with the Russians
Macron attacks RT and Sputnik as propaganda organs. Nobody has done this in front of Putin before. https://t.co/Uri4R6Zn1y— Anne Applebaum (@anneapplebaum) May 29, 2017
“The things that the Russians did in the campaign to him — which he said yesterday — really angered him and really made him into someone who was very focused on the Russia threat in a way he wasn't six months ago,” explains Shapiro.
In the final hours of the French election, Macron’s campaign revealed it had been hit by a “massive and coordinated” hacking attack that dumped some 9 GB of information — including tens of thousands of internal emails and other documents — online for all to see.
The fingerprints on the attack implicated Russian hackers; immediately comparisons were made to efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign in the final weeks of the 2016 presidential election.
But it wasn’t just hacking that rankled Macron. It was also Putin’s clear support for Marine Le Pen, Macron’s rival in the race, including a visit by Le Pen to Moscow during the election.
Trump got the Macron treatment too
Macron, it should be noted, has stood up to not one but two global figures this week.
The takeaway from the first meet-and-greet between the new presidents of France and the United States? That crazy handshake.
Macron, in a literal white-knuckle power play with Trump, all but challenged the US president to a duel here. Macron affirmed as much to the press. “My handshake with him — it wasn’t innocent,” Macron admitted in the Journal du Dimanche. “It was a moment of truth.”
What truth, you might ask? “That’s how you ensure you are respected. You have to show you won’t make small concessions — not even symbolic ones.”
Macron showed his allegiance to Europe, and his dismissal of the American president, in another moment last week. It’s become known as the “swerve.” Walking towards a phalanx of world leaders, Macron dodged Trump and went in first to kiss Angela Merkel. Chivalry? Perhaps.
These moments are just moments, for now
To be sure, Macron’s tough-guy image is, at least so far, more swagger than action.
His promise of a red line on Syria, for example, comes with enormous risk. The French military is dangerously stretched. It requires American backup in its counterterrorism efforts in Mali, for example, and has strained under the constant need to have thousands of troops deployed domestically as the terror threat remains on high alert.
What would happen if another chemical attack took place in Syria — and Trump decided one bombing was enough? It would be hard, if not impossible, for France to go it alone on such issues.
Straight talk, though, is a lot more than Putin has gotten from other leaders. Macron called his conversation with the Russian leader “extremely frank and direct,” addressing terrorism, security, and the need for a restart to Franco-Russian relations. (Back in October, Putin abruptly canceled a meeting with then-President François Hollande after the French leader called Russian bombing of Aleppo a possible war crime.)
But Macron sure sounds bolder than almost anyone else on the world stage right now — except German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Bloomberg View noted, approvingly, “This is far from the milquetoast politics of Francois Hollande, a master of concession. This new man is not afraid to go on the offensive.”
It’s a man, they continued, who can work with Merkel to create a new power center in Europe, one that doesn’t rely on the US — or on Trump, a president whom neither leader trusts or takes seriously. Putin isn't the only foreign leader with autocratic tendencies that Macron feels prepared to challenge.