What’s the use of Emmanuel Macron?

France’s president Emmanuel Macron is one of the few European or even world leaders that Americans know of. This is significant.

It’s partly because of contemporary France’s legacy status in American culture and politics. France has a great back-story and it has class.

It’s also because of Macron himself, his personality, originality and efforts to drag his European colleagues to re-engage ambitiously with European and global issues. Macron of course is playing a weak hand. France is no longer a world power. Nor is today’s Europe for that matter. But he’s a serious person, cultured, fluent, who reminds others that political leadership in liberal democracy doesn’t need to be a choice between dumbing down and playing it safe.  

Certainly, Macron can play the game of democratic panache. He has a gift for slogans and provocative language. Against President Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Macron, in a UN speech about climate change, riposted, “Make the planet great again.” Well-played. His assertion that NATO is “braindead” ran way beyond the usual news cycles. The European Union risks being “obliterated” as a world power. Now he’s trying to organize UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres’s idea that, in the face of continuing wars, there is a need for a “global cease-fire.”  

Macron’s thinking, however, is deeper than slogans and provocations.

He’s suffused with two role models:  François Mitterrand, the Socialist president in office 1981-1995, and the great French World War II hero, Charles de Gaulle, the Fifth Republic’s founding president, 1958-1969.

The differences between Mitterrand and de Gaulle were many. But they were both intellectuals as well as leaders, at home in the world of ideas as well as the arena of power struggles. They, particularly, de Gaulle, drew everyone’s eye to Paris.

De Gaulle wanted “détente, entente and cooperation” with Russia, beyond the cold war with the Soviet Union. He wanted a confederal European structure built on its nation-states, not some unelected bureaucracy in Brussels. Mitterrand tried to have it both ways: a Europe of concentric circles, a close-knit federation within a broader confederation.  The euro was an example, some countries in, others out.

The point is that, like his predecessors, Macron’s significance as France’s leader, and the importance of France itself, has to do with ideas as much or more than practical results, especially when other powers are greater. In any case, ideas are more important than often is recognized. This is hard for Americans to recognize.

It’s tempting to dismiss Macron as some kind of typical French showboat—more substantive than his predecessors François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy but equally ineffective. This is too easy.

Macron leads France in a different era but in certain ways de Gaulle and Mitterrand are always in the background. Macron is trying, as they did, to give France back its history, to make French people interested again in what France once was, to consider that it might be an international influence again by marshalling enthusiasm at home and mutual consciousness with other European governments.  

What’s the alternative? Macron may be playing a weak hand but he’s doing what he can. He hasn’t resigned himself. A pessimism of the intellect balanced by optimism of the will. That’s not nothing.

It’s hard to make this case and easy to criticize it with a list of practical shortcomings and ringing Macronian statements falling on deaf ears.

Leadership is not a skill set, as we Americans say. It’s a state of mind and force of character. A true leader has to try, even against a crude dominant political culture in which Trump’s American populism and Xi Jinping’s reactionary communist party conformism have center stage.

In a recent Financial Times interview Macron said, “I believe (the EU) is a political project. If it’s a political project, the human factor is the priority and there are notions of solidarity that come into play…the economy follows on from that, and let’s not forget that economics is a moral science.” Who among our own leaders could improvise such a line of thought, emphasizing that economics, as Adam Smith said long ago, is a moral science?

Macron as a leader gives France and Europe “face”. He renews interest in them in particular among Americans. France and Europe “exist” as countries that are worth keeping in mind, not just flyover territory.  How many Americans know who’s the beleaguered prime minister of Spain or Italy, or the authoritarian-minded leaders of Hungary or Poland? How many would like to know?

What’s the alternative? Europe becomes a mere space on a map and Europeans come from no particular place and it doesn’t much matter. True leaders can’t accept this.  

For years, Angela Merkel’s bland visage and her careful monetary policies as its stalwart personified Europe’s modus operandi. She was called the true leader of Europe or even the Western world. It was, quite frankly, demoralizing.

The arrival of Boris Johnson in power makes the U.K. newly interesting. It can happen. In the past few years, by comparison, who cared about Theresa May’s or David Cameron’s Britain? 

Thus, the use of Macron. He’s trying. He’s subtle, even brilliant. He’s interesting. Something important may still come of it.

If all this sounds like trying to make a good case out of weak arguments, so be it. Arguing a hard case has its value, even though the wizened will say this is just the old romanticism about France and Europe. It’s much simpler to add yet another voice to conventional wisdom. But no thanks.

This article was originally published on Real Clear World.