Emmanuel Macron has a difficult task ahead of him.
The new French president is stellar in many ways.
Macron is the youngest democratically elected leader France has ever had. He came from relative obscurity to secure the Élysée Palace barely a year after founding a political movement, En Marche!, which many deemed quixotic at best and pointless egotism at worst.
Despite winning the presidency with a resounding majority, Macron is dogged by claims that his victory had little to do with him, and everything to do with defeating the far-right former leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen.
He faces challenges in governing with no functioning majority ahead of June’s legislative elections, where En Marche! must transform itself from a loosely defined movement into a fully fledged political party. In any case, Macron and his allies face stiff competition.
As well as all that, Macron has to get on with the difficult business of government.
One area where France’s influence is strong and possibly growing, and where Macron was not comprehensively quizzed before winning office, is foreign policy.
Macron has many foreign policy challenges to meet as French president.
He has recently visited Mali, which has seen successive French operations intended to drive back and ultimately defeat expansionist Islamist militants.
Notably, Macron promised to maintain a French military presence in the country, and to wage an ‘uncompromising’ fight against those theocratic elements which did so much damage to Mali in 2012 and 2013, and which endangered its government and way of life.
On this front, it seems Macron’s policy is continuity. He will not deviate dramatically from the foreign policy pursued by his predecessor, François Hollande.
Recent French engagement with the wider world, particularly in Africa and the Middle East, has been more interventionist than other Western powers. This has been true under both right- and left-wing presidents.
Nicolas Sarkozy, who preceded Hollande, pledged French support in 2011 to the NATO intervention in Libya against the collapsing regime of Muammar Gaddafi. He spoke passionately about defending Libya’s civilians from the brutality of that regime.
After Tripoli was taken from Gaddafi and the dictator killed and the civil war ended, Sarkozy joined David Cameron, the then-British prime minister, on a tour of Libya’s two largest cities.
Reports from the time indicate that Libyans gave great prominence to the French contributions to that campaign – more than they gave to British and American participation.
Hollande, after his defeat of Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential election, engaged in the above-mentioned Operation Serval in Mali.
He was also prepared to intervene in Syria in 2013 when the Assad regime used chemical weapons against civilians. According to some observers, French jets were in the air when President Barack Obama decided not to go ahead with strikes in the face of domestic American opposition.
Given this recent history, is therefore interesting to wonder how Macron will act.
How will someone who is ‘neither left nor right’ deal with a seeming bipartisan consensus among those in power – a consensus which is fraying?
After all, foreign policy orthodoxy of this sort was repeatedly denigrated by the far-right and the far-left participants in the presidential election Macron so recently won. On this issue, nativist populism walks hand in hand with ‘anti-imperialist’ politics.
And both the far-left and far-right in France nurse soft spots for the bête noir of those who subscribe to foreign policy orthodoxy: President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
It is instructive to examine Macron’s response to the terrorism which has wracked France in recent years, and with seemingly increasing intensity.
He has suggested that the daily toll of terror attacks is part of modern life. And Macron has said that, though terror will be resisted and punished whenever possible, practical reasons dictate that it is very unlikely that the counter-terrorism policies of the state, no matter how effective, will be able to stop the threat of international terror entirely.
Macron’s response to the Paris attack in November 2015 was criticised by some for its softness. He argued that aspects of domestic policy contributed to the ‘fertile ground on which the terrorists feed’. To many, especially on the right, this sounded like blaming the victim.
Writers including Ben Judah, who has spoken to key aides and loyalists, say that Macron may now take a harder line on some foreign policy issues.
Macron has already stated his desire that Bashar al-Assad be tried before an international tribunal, which was as far as he could go during the election campaign without being labelled a warmonger and an American puppet – though he was, perhaps predictably, accused of being both in any case.
This was more than his far-right opponent Le Pen was prepared to say. Her support for Assad was in effect unconditional – though it was nominally predicated on Assad’s supposed support for Syria’s Christian minority and the ‘stability’ some see him as bringing to a country which is fragmented by years of war.
During the presidential campaign, Macron reacted to American strikes on the Assad regime – undertaken after the regime once again used chemical weapons on a civilian area – by calling for ‘a military intervention’, pursued under the auspices of the United Nations.
Macron’s plan for action in Syria is still a work in progress.
But some things have crystallised his foreign policy. The likely Russian-linked hack of his election campaign has hardened Macron’s attitude towards Vladimir Putin and his government.
After Macron’s victory, Russian media suggested that the new French president try to make friends with Putin, but this is a distinctly unlikely possibility.
In many cases, Macron’s foreign policy may continue in the general direction of that of his predecessors. But this was not inevitable. His ill-treatment by Russian-linked hackers and the brutal fact of chemical weapons use by the Assad regime have prompted Macron to take more hawkish positions. This is the result of experience, not ideology.
That experience seems to be pointing Macron towards the path followed by his predecessors, in a direction opposed to the one urged by demagogues of all political persuasions.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.