Over the last two decades, the European Union has looked to Angela Merkel as its de facto leader. But, with Merkel choosing not to seek reelection and the United Kingdom leaving the EU, a whole new dynamic has come to Europe’s political ecosystem.
In this shift, Emmanuel Macron sees an opening to assert France as the new center of influence in Europe. By inserting France into political issues and demanding to play a role in conflicts, Macron seeks a level of importance on the world stage not seen in France since president Nicolas Sarkozy.
Macron attempting to flex his muscles in conflicts is not new; following the Beirut Port explosion in Lebanon, he immediately went to Lebanon to help negotiate forming a new government. Macron has been criticized for refusing to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization, going as far as not even making efforts to ensure aid to Lebanon stayed out of the organization’s hands.
Ultimately going against US President Joe Biden’s rhetoric on Saudi Arabia, Macron became the first prominent Western leader to visit the kingdom since the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Macron’s trip was an effort to get the House of Saud to reengage in ties with Lebanon. This illustrates a strategy Macron has tried to replicate in all of his dealings; he wants to play both sides and work to win no matter who comes out on top.
This strategy is front and center in Macron’s handling of the Libyan civil war. Earlier this month, France played host to a conference that hopes to make sure Libya’s December 24 elections stay on track. Macron has called for foreign fighters to leave the nation while ignoring France’s previous support of the Libyan National Army and Khalifa Haftar, who led a nearly yearlong campaign against Tripoli and the UN-created Government of National Accord. Now that the two sides have joined as a temporary government of national unity, Macron wants bygones to be bygones.
It should be noted that in the Libyan conflict, France and Russia backed the same sides of the war. This adds an interesting wrinkle to other issues as France has stated Russia needs to respect the sovereignty of Ukraine, a belief Macron failed to uphold in Libya. When Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, most of the global community fell silent; now, with reports that Russia is considering another invasion of Ukraine, Macron sees an opportunity to be a defender of Europe.
Macron has never been opposed to working directly with Russia; France recently worked with President Vladimir Putin to reduce European tensions with Belarus. Belarus is primarily viewed as a Russian puppet state, especially after Russia said it would back the regime following widespread signs of election fraud in the last Belarus election. Minsk has violated agreements with European nations, allowing migrants to pass through its borders to reach EU member states. Russia has been supportive of weaponizing refugees in the past, often the same refugees created by efforts they backed.
Macron’s statements have gotten bolder since Merkel made her departure known. Macron stated that France would stay in Iraq regardless of a potential US withdrawal; he did this for multiple reasons. It is no secret that presidents Biden and Macron did not get off to a great start following a controversy surrounding a submarine deal with Australia.
Macron is adamant that the US went behind France’s back to steal the contract from French manufacturers. Following Washington’s sloppy withdrawal from Afghanistan, Macron saw an opening to take another jab at Biden by making it known that Paris does not look to Washington for guidance on foreign affairs.
Macron is seizing what he believes is a moment of French accession on the world stage. Whether his efforts will be fruitful have yet to be seen; what is clear is newfound confidence that will change how Europe has operated for the last two decades. Moreover, Macron wants to fill a potential void left by Merkel; whether or not everyone else plays along will give great insight into how he will perform in his reelection efforts in the coming year.
The writer is pursuing a master’s in public policy (environmental policy) at Arizona State University.