French presidential race: Macron’s diplomacy in Ukraine keeps challengers at a distance

In normal times, Emmanuel Macron would have campaigned so far to try to secure a second term in a presidential election that is only seven weeks away, plotting a strategy, appearing in televised debates and raising his supporters at rallies.

But times are far from normal, and none of this happens.

Instead, the French president appears chained to his desk, the shadow at five o’clock growing into straw, his eyebrows furrowed, his attention focused east, where he hopes to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an all-out war in Ukraine.

Macron has not even told the nation whether he intends to run for re-election in the April elections, although few doubt he will.

In the past few days, he has spent countless hours on the phone with nearly every leader with an interest in the Ukraine crisis: Putin, US President Joe Biden, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and European Union leaders.

The opposition at home accuses him of making a “show” while embracing the headlines of international newspapers with his diplomacy instead of engaging with other presidential candidates at home.

French presidential election © France 24 Some say he is living dangerously by pinning his chances of scoring diplomatic points on someone as unpredictable as Putin.

Credit for “trying”

But the downside appears limited, as Macron will be given credit for “tried” even if Russian tanks end up rolling toward Kiev, according to Philip Moreau Chevrolet, who heads MCBG, a public relations firm.

“Even if he fails with the Russians, he will emerge as the leader of the European efforts,” he told AFP. This was even more important, he said, because Macron was acting “without the guiding role of Angela Merkel,” the former German chancellor.

A positive aspect of the strategy, Moreau Chevrolet said, is that the international crisis puts Macron firmly at the center of media attention and public debate, “completely removing opposition from view.”

>> Read more: Ukraine crisis highlights stark divisions among France’s presidential candidates

Macron’s efforts appeared to pay off in the early hours of Monday when he persuaded Biden and Putin to agree, in principle, to a summit meeting.

But within 24 hours, things got tense again with Putin recognizing the breakaway republics of eastern Ukraine as independent.

Macron condemned the move, and his office said Putin had “failed to keep his promise,” but the president’s advisers were also quick to shield their man from the fallout from what they called Putin’s “paranoid behaviour”.

“We’ve taken this to the fullest extent possible,” said an Elysee adviser, by asking Putin to decide whether he wants to meet Biden. “We invited President Putin to make a decision, and he made his decision.”

The presidential PR machine has, extraordinarily, made sure Macron’s actions are visible. Over the past month, the Elysee has communicated in real time on who Macron is speaking and when, and organized background briefings for French and foreign correspondents.

‘positive energy’

Macron’s personal photographer even posted a series of photos of the president on his desk at the weekend, unshaven and his face full of tiredness.

“The president has a lot of positive energy,” said one of the advisers, describing Macron as “more a mediator than a mediator.”

The chancellor added that Macron “takes the risk”, using one of the president’s favorite terms.

This proactive approach was already evident in its role in other tense situations, in Lebanon, Libya, the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict and the Iranian nuclear issue – and it was not always successful.

This time, Macron’s advisers freely admit, the danger is that any mistake in Ukraine may be difficult to correct before French voters cast their ballots in the first round on April 10.

His opponents have already begun to pursue him, not least by accusing him of naivety toward Putin.

“This is the kind of political show that the president loves,” said Thierry Mariani, a spokesman for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. “There is no tangible result, because it is the Americans and the Russians who make the decision.”

Eric Zemmour, another far-right, said Macron was “doomed” because Russia views France as “Washington’s little boy”.

Jean-Luc Melenchon of the far left said Macron lacked credibility when he promised to defend Ukraine’s integrity. “The Russians know very well that we cannot,” he said.

Commentators in France mostly agree that Macron will announce his candidacy for re-election sometime next week, just days before the official March 4 deadline.

Recent polls continue to predict that he will win a second term, regardless of which other candidate he faces in the second round.


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