France and Britain have been bickering again, this time about the chaos at the ferry ports over the weekend. The ‘clown’, as Emmanuel Macron reportedly dubbed Boris Johnson, may be on his way out, but there seems no end in sight to the circus that Anglo-French relations have become. Might that change with a new ringmaster in No. 10? Maybe, if Rishi Sunak wins the contest to become prime minister.
Sunak and Macron are similar in many ways beyond their background in finance; presentable and polished but, so say their detractors, ideologically shallow.
In this week’s Spectator Douglas Murray describes Sunak as resembling ‘someone who has floated to the top and rarely had to get his hands dirty with political debate, never mind political warfare’. Ditto Macron. The president doesn’t like to debate, or even to give interviews because, as he memorably declared in 2017, his thoughts are ‘too complex’ for ordinary mortals.
Something else that Macron appears to find unsettling are female politicians. So given a choice between Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss one suspects he would find the former easier to work with. Truss on the other hand would cause Macron discomfort; not on account of her intellect, but rather the subtle alteration in etiquette that a female PM would necessitate. He’s encountered other women in power, notably the former German chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he enjoyed a warm and close partnership, even if they had the odd divergent view. Macron also had a respectful relationship with Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
But these were older women, from the same generation as Macron’s wife, Brigitte. Women of his own generation – Truss is two years his senior – do not appear to be accorded the same respect. This has been noted in France, and a criticism often heard during Macron’s first term in office was that he ran his administration like a ‘boys’ club’.
The most powerful ministries – interior, economy, foreign, justice, education and (since 2020) health – were run by men, and among his 15 closest advisors there was but one woman. In March this year, Macron gave one of his rare interviews, to mark International Women’s Day, and readers of Elle magazine had the opportunity to pose their questions to the president. One accused him of paying lip service to promoting women’s issues, saying ‘we really have the impression of a boys’ club.’
But not now, surely? His new government is led by Élisabeth Borne, the first female PM in 30 years, the foreign minister is Catherine Colonna and Yaël Braun-Pivet is the first woman to be president of the National Assembly.
The current affairs magazine, Le Point, marked this transformation earlier this month with a column headlined ‘Macron: farewell to the boys’ club’. Or is it? The journalist expressed her scepticism that the president will change, quoting old friends of Macron who said: ‘Emmanuel has trouble working with women, it’s difficult for him’.
Not long after Macron was elected president in 2017, he told Vanity Fair that he was a ‘late convert to feminism, but like all converts, I’m resolute’. In January this year, the magazine expressed its doubt about that declaration in a feature entitled ‘Has Emmanuel Macron a problem with intelligent women?’
For all his fine words about championing the feminist cause, concluded the magazine, ‘Macron has not taken advantage of his accession to power to open the door wide to women’.
One of the few female ministers throughout Macron’s presidency, Marlène Schiappa, conceded that: ‘Politics remains a giant boys’ club, even if, from time to time, a few intruders emerge’.
The same is true on the international stage. Macron’s friendship with Canadian premier Justin Trudeau has been described by the French media as a ‘bromance’, and he’s also on good terms with Mark Rutte, prime minister of the Netherlands.
With male leaders who don’t share his progressive outlook, Macron is almost gladiatorial. Who will forget his ‘white knuckle’ handshake with Donald Trump in 2017, when New York swagger met Gallic Machismo?
The testosterone always courses when Macron is in the presence of Vladimir Putin, and at the start of his presidency he emulated the Russian president’s penchant for striking macho poses. But France isn’t Russia and the mocking headlines when Macron turned up at an air base dressed as Tom Cruise from Top Gun persuaded him that he should stick to a suit.
Macron has acquired a reputation for talking down to his people – it’s been dubbed ‘Macronsplaining’. If he failed to soften his cocksure behaviour in the presence of Truss, he might leave himself open to accusations of ‘Mansplaining’, which wouldn’t do his progressive credentials much good.
The fact that Truss voted Remain might work in her favour in building a better relationship with Macron. His detestation of Brexit is well known and has been cited as the cause of a lot of the Anglo-French friction. But if Truss has been able to accept that her side lost why can’t Macron and his other Brexit-hating ministers such as Clément Beaune and Gabriel Attal? Perhaps it is time the little boys’ club stopped sulking.
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