Emmanuel Macron and his negotiating team are livid over the Ukraine quagmire, and they don’t care who knows it. For the past two weeks, the French President has tried every ounce of charm, diplomacy, conviction, guile, and brinksmanship. He has been sleeping four-hour nights and offering concessions beyond anything he’d suggested so far, all in the name of bringing Europe back from the edge. Unfortunately, the bully at the other end never intended to play ball.
Two weeks ago, Macron decided he alone was capable of convincing the Russian president not to start a war on Ukraine. Armed with the self-belief that has never failed him, Macron was sure that Putin could be persuaded to see the rational side of things. For most of the president’s first term, that was the assumption under which Macron operated.
From the start, Macron saw his presidency as an exercise in sabre tooth tiger taming. Just as he’d wowed Donald Trump with a mammoth military parade on the Champs Élysées for Bastille Day, Macron first invited Putin to a grandiose summit at Versailles, weeks after his 2017 election. The following year, he visited him in St Petersburg, talking up a storm on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky under the cold stares of Putin’s MGIMO-educated advisers. Finally, Emmanuel and Brigitte Macron opened up the Fort de Brégançon for Putin, the presidential residence on the Med where Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande used to sunbathe with their partner du jour.
But what was that charm offensive all for? To find himself at the end of a twenty-foot-long Louis de Oligarch marble table, being offered nary a concession after a five-hour discussion? At the traditional post-talk presser, the French president and his advisers tried to spin the result as a commitment to de-escalation even after Putin quoted a barracks song that compared Ukraine to a girl that just had “to take it”. Macron was still on the plane back, briefing the likes of The Economist and Le Monde, when the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, suggested nothing had in fact changed. The timing was designed to make Macron’s hasty boasts sound like a vanity project, achieving nothing but dividing the West. It worked.
Macron was spared no blushes at home. He was ridiculed in Paris by all rival candidates, with Éric Zemmour mocking the President as “Washington’s little messenger boy” and Valérie Pécresse saying that he was “played for a fool”. Meanwhile, the grand political pundit and academic Jacques Julliard dismissed Macron as “an adolescent who’s still learning on the job after five years.” That must have stung.
But as Russia massed more and more troops on Ukraine’s Eastern border, and word in Washington came of arrests and kill lists in a conquered Ukraine, Macron admirably resolved to yet again try jaw-jaw in the face of war-war last weekend. But this time, it would be a joint effort. From the plan’s inception, Olaf Scholz, Joe Biden and Anthony Blinken, and Boris Johnson were constantly kept in the loop. As Benjamin Haddad, the Senior Director for Europe at the Atlantic Council think tank, told me: “Macron had learned his lesson. He put all quarrels aside and talked with Johnson regularly. That the effort failed and the tanks crossed the border must be chalked up to Putin, not Macron.”
It would be easy to dismiss all these moves as Macron trying to burnish his pre-election image. But we should also give him some credit for what he is trying to accomplish. In spite of all the criticism and embarrassment he has suffered over the past two weeks, he is not giving up — and the future of Europe could depend on it.