On February 20, Emmanuel Macron held a phone call with Vladimir Putin. Shortly after it ended, the French President announced he would broker a summit between his Russian counterpart and US President Joe Biden, on the condition that Russia did not invade its neighbor.
The next day, Putin declared two regions of Ukraine as independent and by the end of the week had sent troops into the country.
Ever since the crisis began, Macron has assumed the role of Europe’s statesman, willing to talk face-to-face and on the phone multiple times with Putin in a way that other world leaders would be either unwilling or, Macron’s supporters believe, unable to do.
Critics might argue that Macron’s indulgence legitimizes a man that Biden has described as a war criminal, but his allies say that, at the very least, keeping the line open to Moscow eliminates any claim Putin could make that he’d been isolated and had no diplomatic alternative other than invasion.
This is far from the first time Macron has played the part of Europe’s spiritual leader. He took the lead on dealing with former US President Donald Trump during some of the most difficult moments of his time in office. He also set many of the European Union’s red lines during Brexit negotiations with the UK. He has hosted talks in Paris for rival groups in Libya in order to host a ceasefire. And during the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, he tried to broker a world truce.
Macron is a man who sees himself and France as a force for good on the world stage. And though his interventions often don’t live up to expectations — Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and Paris climate accord; Putin invaded Ukraine — the statesman persona plays well with French domestic audiences. All of which helps Macron as he fights for reelection this month.
The war has cast a shadow over the French presidential election campaign, the first round of which takes place on April 10. Macron’s most likely opponent in the second round, the far-right Marine Le Pen, has had to address her past ties to Russia, which include financial support from Russian banks.
If Macron does secure a second term, it’s likely he will want to continue and go further in his role as Europe’s political and moral guide.
He has hardly been shy in the past about his grand vision for the future of the European Union — and how he sees France sitting at the center of the project.
When he addressed the audience at his victory rally after winning election on May 7 2017, Macron promised not only to lead France, but also to provide stable leadership for the whole of the continent at a time of uncertainty.
After arriving at the rally accompanied by the tune of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU’s anthem, Macron told the crowd he would “defend Europe.”
“Our civilization is at stake, our way of living, of being free, of promoting our values, our common enterprises and our hopes,” Macron said.
Back then, the biggest threat to Europe was Brexit. The practicalities, implications and consequences of a member state leaving the EU were not fully known, and although the EU remained united throughout the process, the negotiations involving Britain’s departure from the bloc would practically bring the business of Brussels to a halt for the best part of four years. Macron, however, saw an opportunity to revitalize and strengthen the EU without the UK.
In September 2017, his presidency still in its infancy, Macron delivered a speech in which he laid out his vision of a “sovereign Europe.” Macron wanted to reform and rebuild the bloc in a way that bound the EU closer than ever, including having a joint intervention force and defense budget, as well as the means “to effectively control our borders” and using economic incentives to “bring our social and fiscal models closer together.”
Not everyone agreed with him. Sophie Pedder, Paris bureau chief for the Economist and author of “Revolution Française: Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation,” said that at the time it felt as though Macron was “calling out into a void,” as the rest of Europe struggled to get its head around the French President’s grand vision.
“Macron made this quite complicated plea for European sovereignty and there was silence from Germany, which had just had an election and it wasn’t clear what the resulting government would look like,” Pedder told CNN.