PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is a master of persuasion.
In his youth, he seduced his married high school drama teacher, the woman who is now his wife. In middle age — with no government experience — he cajoled a sitting president into giving him a coveted cabinet position. Then — with no support from any established political party — he dazzled a nation, becoming, at 39, the youngest-ever president of France, a country where tradition is a way of life.
Nearly 100 days into Macron’s presidency, there are already indications that the French are increasingly skeptical of their new president. While a majority still approve of him, Macron’s initially sky-high approval rating dropped by 10 percent this month, mostly because of his refusal to back down on commitments to slash government spending. He has also come under fire for failing to aid migrants, sparred with France’s chief military officer, who later resigned, and pushed to expand the state’s powers to fight terrorism in ways that critics fear will permanently curtail civil liberties.
Judging from the new president’s calendar, however, the dip in domestic popularity is of little concern, for his roving political eye seems to have identified a new conquest. Macron may be the president of France, but now he seems to be running for a different office altogether: the leader of the free world.
Following the election of Donald Trump — who ran on promises of “America First” isolationism — commentators worldwide immediately began referring to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the de facto defender of the liberal world order. With her famously stoic demeanor, Merkel appeared the natural replacement. Throughout her long career, she has advocated diplomacy and international law, and has defended an embattled European Union.
But in his first three months in office, Macron has dared to tread where Merkel hesitates to go. In keeping with his youthful image, he makes bold statements in defense of global causes such as climate change action, as evidenced in his Twitter campaign to “Make Our Planet Great Again.” And in the style of the “French Obama,” he hosts international celebrities in the Élysée for “conversations” on hot-button issues — including both Bono and Rihanna this week.
In any case, the major plot points of his young presidency have all featured him in the international spotlight, either attempting to charm or stand up to powerful world leaders, often those unpopular in France.
This is not to say that nothing has happened on the domestic level since his election in May. Macron, a relative political outsider even a year ago, ultimately succeed in carrying out an almost unthinkable overhaul of French political life. The new centrist party he founded, République En Marche (Republic on the Move), now has an absolute majority in Parliament.
But in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, his principal ambition to date seems to be casting himself as a master negotiator in a new world where all roads somehow lead to Paris.
“To some extent, France is back again,” said Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the United States and the E.U., in an interview. “You have France pushing forward its interest, but doing so in a way that makes it take a central position on the world stage, because France likes to lead and likes to be seen as leading.”
This defense of French interests has taken forms large and small, including a last-minute move to temporarily nationalize France’s largest shipyard on Thursday — to save French jobs from a potential Italian takeover. But so far, it has mostly been the world stage on which Macron has set his sights.
Last week, for instance, he hosted Libya’s two rival leaders for talks in a chateau outside Paris. The mission was tentatively successful: the meeting led to a conditional cease-fire agreement between Fayez al-Sarraj, Libya’s U.N.-backed prime minister, and Khalifa Haftar, the military leader who controls much of eastern Libya.
For France, the issue of Libya holds particular significance, given the country’s past difficulties in negotiating any functioning resolution in the region, as in the joint Franco-British 2011 operation.
“The cause of peace has made great progress today,” said Macron at the end of discussions, heralding the “historic courage” of the two leaders he invited.
Likewise, Vimont said, Macron has positioned himself as a similar mediator between Israel and Palestine and even between the United States and Russia.
Macron has hosted — separately — Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In each of these meetings, Macron has used his considerable charm to play both sides, even while blasting Putin for Russia’s state-owned media being “organs of propaganda.” With Abbas, he opposed settlements, calling them “illegal under international law.” With Netanyahu, he decried anti-Zionism, which, for Macron, is “the reinvented form of anti-Semitism.”
But nowhere was Macron’s ability to seduce more on display than in the case of Trump, whom he invited to Paris after the two had a tense first meeting in Brussels in May. The entire affair was dominated by a six-second handshake widely interpreted as a display of Gallic machismo — and that Macron later told a French newspaper was “a moment of truth.”
In their second encounter, however, Macron was all smiles, outwardly embracing the Trump, who enjoys an approval rating of just 14 percent in France, according to a recent poll from the Pew Research Center. Even after Trump commented on the “good physical shape” of Macron’s 64-year-old wife, Brigitte, the young president referred to his American counterpart as “dear Donald” and flattered him while the cameras were rolling.
But Macron’s flattery began long before the visit, Trump revealed in an Oval Office interview with the New York Times this month. Trump — who has refused to visit Britain until Prime Minister Theresa May can “fix” a warm welcome for him — initially asked Macron whether there would be protests in Paris, he told the Times.
“I said, ‘Do you think it’s a good thing for me?’ ”
Trump said Macron was quick to say that protests would not be a problem, and that a lavish spectacle of French military pomp would await him on the storied Champs Elysées. Trump arrived, and there were no protests in sight. He now extols his “great relationship” with Macron.
For Dominique Moïsi, a French foreign policy expert at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, a think tank with ties to the Macron campaign, there is potential danger in Macron’s having “put himself in the limelight.”
“At the same time, the devil is in the details,” Moïsi said. “By receiving these leading opposite forces in Paris, he’s taking a risk. What if he fails?”
In Macron’s official presidential portrait — whose heavy symbolism France’s chattering classes have taken to scrutinizing in the manner of a Holbein or a Rembrandt — he appears near a stack of books, one of which is opened on the desk behind him.
Among them is Stendhal’s “The Red and the Black,” Le Monde revealed, a classic 19th-century novel that tells the story of Julien Sorel, a young provincial who, like Macron, comes to Paris to seek his fortune and, as it happens, seduces an older woman along the way.
In the novel, things do not end particularly well for Julien, but one thing is sure: he is the slave of a staggering ambition, and nothing can stand in his way. Among the novel’s most famous lines: “Each man for himself, in that desert of egoism which is called life.”
Macron’s young presidency has not yet experienced a major domestic crisis or attack. Likewise, none of his major policy proposals have yet been implemented — including his controversial push to liberalize France’s highly regulated labor market. Those reforms are due to be introduced in Parliament this fall, and could inspire massive protests.
With an absolute majority in Parliament — populated with deputies Macron hand-picked, all of whom represent a new political party that bears his own initials — Macron is not yet used to opposition. As he said to French troops, in the midst of a dispute over military budget cuts, “I am your boss. . . . I need no pressure and no commentary.”
For some, Macron’s overt allusion to Stendhal evinces a sense of humor on his part, an ironic self-awareness. For others, it represents a different kind of irony, almost an inadvertent foreshadowing.
As Moïsi put it, “The hard times are yet to come.”