Macron’s Mediations

On May 30, French journalist Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff, who was 32, was killed by Russian artillery shrapnel. He was covering a humanitarian evacuation in eastern Ukraine and was killed during an apparent humanitarian ceasefire. 

Leclerc-Imhoff’s death was unlucky. If the projectile that struck him hadn’t passed at the exact angle it did through the hardened window, it wouldn’t have hit him in the neck. His death was a freak accident, the result of pure chance — and Russia’s willingness to violate ceasefires.

Yet just a few days later, French President Emmanuel Macron still stressed that ‘We must not humiliate Russia, so that the day when the fighting stops, we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.’

‘I am convinced that it is France’s role to be a mediating power,’ he said.

During his time as president, Macron has attended and spoken at many funerals as head of state, delivering speeches that project the grandeur of his vision of France and its citizenry. At the 2017 service for rock star Johnny Hallyday, Macron called the musician ‘part of France.’ ‘Johnny was yours. Johnny was his public. Johnny was his country,’ he said. At the 2020 memorial for Samuel Paty, a teacher murdered for what his killers called blasphemy, Macron called him ’the face of the republic.’

But when Leclerc-Imhoff’s death was announced, Macron rather coldly took to Twitter, simply calling him a ‘journalist,’ and not even a typically nobly French one. Macron wrote that Leclerc-Imhoff was ‘in Ukraine to show the reality of the war.’

‘On board a humanitarian bus, alongside civilians forced to flee to escape Russian bombs, he was fatally shot,’ the president summarized without passion. And to those who cover wars like this, he said, ‘I would like to reiterate France’s unconditional support.’

Macron has attempted to be a mediator in Ukraine since before the war began. It’s unlikely he’ll speak at Leclerc-Imhoff’s funeral. But more phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin, which Macron has turned into a specialty, are no doubt on his mind.

Back in early February, during his first attempt at mediation, the French president claimed Putin had given him personal assurances that, in the case of Ukraine, Russia would shortly ‘deescalate.’ There’d be no war on Macron’s watch. But Putin’s spokesman Dmitri Peskov denied that promise was ever made on the very same day. 

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, less than 20 days later, didn’t diminish Macron’s desire to mediate, however — nor did it shake his belief that any promise he could induce Putin to make might be kept. 

In late May, Macron spoke to Putin once again, this time alongside German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as the pair attempted to broker a ceasefire in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol and lift the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports.

They achieved neither of these objectives. The Azovstal defenders were directed to surrender by the Ukrainian military days later, and the Black Sea blockade remains in force. ‘Any solution to the war must be negotiated between Moscow and Kyiv, with due respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,’ Macron later averred.

Ukrainian officials see this as an evasion. They believe, the ‘territorial integrity of Ukraine’ Macron speaks of means only what the French president decides it to be — after suitable concessions are made to the Russian invaders.  

Meanwhile, analysts began picking up on a certain tone in French diplomacy. French diplomats were unwilling to discuss ‘splits in the Western alliance,’ but they were beginning to imply a ‘difference of appreciation.’ A difference between the more gung-ho opponents of Russian imperialism — namely, the Baltic states, Poland, the United Kingdom and America — and those, such as France and Germany, which are prepared to accept the reality that, in their eyes, Russia can’t be defeated and must, therefore, be dealt with. 

But to Ukrainian minds, ‘dealing with Russia’ means nothing short of appeasement — something the country’s leaders find baffling. They know Macron understands the risks they run, as well as their certainty that territory in the east, which remains under Russian control, will suffer the fate of Bucha.

Interestingly, when Macron won reelection in April, the first time any French president has done so in 20 years, many observers mused that, free from the burdens of going before the electorate, he could finally act as his own man. And seemingly, Macron proved this straight away, accelerating the speed with which France sent and deployed its CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to eastern Ukraine — vital weapons for the war of attrition and artillery duels that are taking hold there.

No longer, they thought, would Macron feel himself hostage to the idea of France as a Western democracy apart and aloof from the rest — entrenched in the image of former President Charles de Gaulle, ordering foreign troops out of France in 1966 and deprecating NATO.

This has proven incorrect.

Not only is Macron clearly part of this French tradition, he’s an exponent of it — as his repeated framing of France as a mediator nation indicates.

In his memoir, ‘Revolution,’ and his tentpole interviews to Der Spiegel at the beginning of his presidency, Macron spoke of the need for an ambitious, and even immodest, role for France on the global stage.

Along those lines, in 2017, he offered to mediate between the Kurdish Regional Government and the Iraqi state after violence broke out between the two. He didn’t manage to have any impact there.

In Libya, he cast himself as a mediator between the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognized Government of National Accord, while aiding Haftar alongside the United Arab Emirates and Russia — that is, until Haftar’s offensive was stopped outside Tripoli in 2020, and Macron’s initiative, again, fell apart.

After the Beirut explosion in 2020, Macron also traveled to Lebanon and offered French authority to mediate between balkanized factions and build a new democracy atop the ruins. But after that political system proved too intractable and — in the words of Lebanese sources — Macron was ‘played’ by Hezbollah, he lost interest.

These diplomatic gambits have all failed. Neither France nor Macron himself have ever proved to be the mediator he conceives them to be. And on Russian state TV, some of the hosts have now popularized a verb — macronit, or ‘to Macron’ — which means to call someone incessantly for no real reason.

But still, some other NATO statesmen see a small utility in Macron’s continual efforts to get Putin on the phone. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, for example, said he has ‘no problem’ with Macron’s calls to Putin. ‘Somebody has got to tell Putin he’s lost one day. Somebody is going to have to ring him up and say leave because you’re making a fool of yourself. That may be the Chinese,’ Wallace said.

‘It may be President Macron,’ he added.

This piece was originally published in Politico Europe.

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