2 May 2018
Emmanuel Macron arrived in Australia on Tuesday night for a rare visit, fresh from a trip to Washington in which he seemed to do the impossible: he deepened “le bromance” with Donald Trump while criticising the United States president on climate change, trade and isolationism.
Despite his ailing fortunes at home, the globetrotting French president has been described as the “new leader of the free world”. He is being feted as the best hope against a slide towards populism, inwardness and protectionism – a slide that US administrations have traditionally opposed, rather than encouraged.
For Australia, facing an unpredictable White House and a nasty outbreak of illiberalism across South-East Asia, this French visit comes at an unusual moment, in which the two nations suddenly find their interests closely aligned.
Macron’s brand of strident globalism offers a much-needed alternative to the rising populist tide. Addressing 700 European lawmakers, Macron recently declared war on “national selfishness and egotism”: Malcolm Turnbull should enlist.
Typically, a French leader’s visit to Australia would receive little attention, even here. But this visit has been closely followed by the international media and policymakers. It has given Turnbull an opportunity to endorse Macron’s display of French resistance.
Of course, the weighty rhetoric may not lead to action. Macron has only been president for a year and his achievements on the world stage remain slight. There is also much to be wary of in France: the tax cuts for the wealthy; the tough stance on migrants; the excessive confidence in business; a lack of emphasis on human rights; the attitude of exceptionalism and brazen self-belief.
But Macron’s approach to world affairs is preferable to that offered by other leaders dominating the global stage. It is worth endorsing, particularly at a time when the international values that Australia ostensibly promotes – a respect for law, global institutions, and free and fair trade – are so at odds with those of the US president.
Remarkably, this is only the second visit to Australia by a French leader (Francois Hollande visited in 2014 ahead of a G20 meeting in Brisbane). It was prompted, perhaps primarily, by Macron’s intention to travel on to New Caledonia, a French territory, where he is trying to help local French loyalists defeat an independence bid at a referendum in November. Macron and Turnbull are due to discuss France’s involvement in building Australian submarines, in cyber warfare, in foreign meddling by Russia and China, and in a free trade deal between Australia and the European Union – the last of which may test Macron’s opposition to protectionism, given his determination to protect the interests of French farmers.
But the timing is fortunate for Turnbull. Macron’s international stature has never been greater. He became Europe’s unofficial leader after German chancellor Angela Merkel was weakened by a disappointing election result last year. Then he made a surprise trip to the Middle East to try to soothe tensions between Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Then he helped lead the push for a French–United States–British strike on Syria’s chemical weapons facilities. And then he lectured both Europe and Trump on the dangers of nationalism and “closing the door to the world”. Now he is in Australia, where he visited Sydney’s Anzac War Memorial on Wednesday morning, stating: “No great nation has ever been built by turning its back on the world.”
In France, Macron's international efforts have not prevented his poll ratings from dropping, particularly amid the less wealthy, though he has four years to improve his standing before the next election.
The state visit to Australia was partly motivated by Turnbull’s decision to select a French firm for the $50 billion project to build Australia’s new fleet of twelve submarines. This is the most expensive project, civil or military, ever undertaken in Australia – and it has been subject to surprisingly little public debate.
When the contract was awarded in 2016, Turnbull was under pressure to select a bid from Japan to cement Canberra’s partnership and shared regional interests with Tokyo. France, back then, seemed so far away. But this was before Trump was elected. It also preceded the Brexit vote, and the anointing of Xi Jinping as ruler for life.
Macron’s leadership in the fight for liberal values and cooperation has placed France and Australia closer together, cornered in a part of the global order that is under threat. Neither nation is likely to live up to the rhetoric, but the cause is worth championing, especially as its old patrons fall silent.