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It made for a good photo-op. At a summit in the French capital marking the second anniversary of the Paris climate accord, President Emmanuel Macron held up a sign riffing on President Trump's campaign slogan: "Make our planet great again." The polished, youthful French leader was thumbing his nose at Trump, who plans to pull his country out of the global agreement and make it, in this context at least, an international pariah.
Aiding Macron in the fight were dozens of world leaders alongside a series of prominent Americans — former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, former secretary of state John F. Kerry, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and billionaires Richard Branson, Bill Gates and others. The dignitaries pushed back against Trump's insistence that setting goals to reduce global emissions would harm American businesses, instead championing investment in renewable-energy projects. World Bank President Jim Yong Kim said his agency would stop funding oil and gas projects in two years.
This is fertile ground for Macron, who has "worked hard to establish himself as the world's liberal foil" to the American president, as Politico EU put it, beaming enterprise and charisma at a series of international summits in the past year. "The [U.S.] withdrawal — to be totally fair with you — created a huge momentum to me to create a counter-momentum," Macron said in a Monday interview with CBS News. He has also taken the lead in revitalizing a flagging European Union, proposing a federalizing "Plan for Europe."
But when facing domestic challenges, Macron is on tougher terrain. His approval ratings dropped dramatically over the summer as his government unfurled proposals for painful economic reforms. Much like centrist leaders elsewhere in the West, he also faces a skeptical public, energized by the ascendance of populist movements and resentful of an establishment they feel has betrayed their interests.
"While the French are mostly proud to have an internationally respected leader, many remain ambivalent about a character often seen as overly timid on cultural problems raging at home," my colleague James McAuley wrote over the weekend. "Identity in general — and Islam in particular — remain crucial issues in France, yet on both questions Macron has been quiet."
An economist who once declared that he wanted France to be a "start-up" nation, Macron seems the prototypical Silicon Valley politician, an optimistic technocrat with a vision for a rosy liberal future. "Emmanuel Macron is increasingly perceived as the president who speaks to the bit of France that’s doing well," said Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Sciences Po in Paris, to the Financial Times. "This is an image he will have a hard time getting rid of. Working-class voters do not feel he is one of them."
His apparent reticence to wade into debates over French identity is proving politically problematic. “To his credit, he doesn’t think French secularism should be used against Muslims,” Yasser Louati, a French human rights advocate, said to McAuley. “But by remaining silent, he’s allowing the public debate to be hijacked by extremist parties. God knows why.”
This dynamic is not exclusive to France. Ahead of coalition talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Martin Schulz, the leader of the country's main center-left party, made his Macron-esque call for an integrated "United States of Europe" a leading point of negotiations. But the proposal was quickly dismissed by Merkel's allies, seen as a "pipe dream" at a time when nationalist feelings are high across the continent — even in staid, consensus-loving Germany.
In a year marked by political turbulence and increased polarization in the West, it more and more seems as though the battered liberal establishment and right-wing populists speak different languages. One side champions a shared global future, the other clings to the mythic bonds of blood and soil. One side agonizes about inclusion and dialogue, the other finds its greatest energy in a climate of rage and fear.
Macron's globalism — to use a term loaded with political meaning over the past year — and the good intentions of jet-setting financiers have no real answer for what drives the fury of right-wing populists in France. Indeed, the leftist populism of Britain's Jeremy Corbyn seems perhaps a more effective counter at a time when large sections of the European electorate see themselves losing out amid two decades of rapid globalization.
But the appeal of right-wing populism is not just about economic grievance. Trump and his far-right counterparts across the Atlantic have clung to the issues Macron dodges, namely narrow visions of identity and the siren song of nationalism. As the liberal Bulgarian thinker Ivan Krastev wrote in a recent New York Times column, "populism thrives when politics become about symbols rather than substance," while populists seek "to keep society highly polarized."
That is powerfully on show in the United States, where Trump has marshaled his base with claims of restoring a lost past, demonizing immigrants and warring with mainstream institutions, including the media. His messaging revolves around incessant declarations of victory and promises for further success — the building of a wall, the bombing of the enemy, the banning of migrants.
So while Macron and other champions of the liberal order winked and smirked at Trump's absence in Paris, it's almost certain the U.S. president didn't care much — indeed, in the current climate, enemies like Macron are exactly what he may want.