France is a place that embraces paradox and revels in contradictoriness, and its president is no exception to this rule of exceptions to rules. Consider Emmanuel Macron’s stance on trade negotiations with the U.S.: he is prepared to fly solo, casting the lone dissenting vote against opening negotiations, all in order (he says) to uphold the “European project.” The justification is especially ironic because his stance on trade – and a similarly defiant view of extending the Brexit timeline – is clearly intended to curry favor with French voters, at the cost of alienating France’s European partners and increasing diplomatic isolation. Most amusing of all, it is a purely symbolic “non” from a French president who has prided himself on pragmatism.
- Macron’s stated reason for voting against opening trade negotiations with the U.S. is Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw America from the Paris Climate Agreement, a move now almost two years old – but the real motive may be growing French skepticism about globalization and free trade, an attitude that is very much in keeping with the global tenor of the times. By casting a symbolic vote against, Macron can grandstand against free trade and Trump without actually obstructing the progress of negotiations or sacrificing French commercial interests, allowing him to have his cake and eat it (the trade negotiations will likely take years, by which point all this will be forgotten in favor of the next European or global crisis).
- The Financial Times reckons that Macron’s dissent, doubtless to be followed by more unilateral moves in the near future, is designed to neutralize the threat from both the French right and left, not to mention ecological advocates upset over his decision to walk back a fuel tax in the face of the Yellow Jacket protests (another contradiction so delicious).
- But has Macron thought through the consequences of his paradoxical policies? Grandstanding for political benefit at home is all well and good, but Macron risks further undermining both Europe’s already fraying cohesion as well as France’s position in the EU. If the EU concludes trade negotiations with the U.S. on the strength of the commitments of Germany and other countries, over supposed French objections, France’s position in Europe will be permanently diminished, reduced to a follower rather than leader, while the EU’s claims to operate on consultation and consensus will be revealed as a sham.
- Even more dangerous for all concerned: French opposition sends a clear signal to Donald Trump that European unity is fraying – a strategic lever the president can use to gain better trade terms for the U.S. or perhaps deliberately steer the negotiations into failure. After all, who says the American president really wants a free trade agreement anyway?