Bayeux tapestry loan is latest example of use of symbolism to raise France’s global profile
Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor
Ever since the Norman era, the fine art of the meaningful gift has been at the heart of statecraft.
Historically, they have ranged from a menagerie of exotic animals to fabulous jewels, but Emmanuel Macron – by first offering the Chinese a horse called Vesuvius, and now offering the British the loan of the Bayeux tapestry – has revealed himself this month as the modern master of the diplomatic gesture.
Most contemporary diplomatic gifts reveal more vulgarity than thought. Saudi Arabia’s King Salman gave the former US president Barack Obama a silver-toned letter opener and pen priced at $56,729 (£41,000), while the president of Argentina brought the first family a black electric bicycle worth $1,499 and two signed Lionel Messi shirts worth $1,700.
Other modern diplomatic gifts have come cheaper; in 2009, the then US secretary of state, Hilary Clinton, presented the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, with a large red “reset button” to represent a reboot in relations – except that the Russian word emblazoned on the button did not translate as “reset” but “overcharge”.
Others are just best forgotten: Gordon Brown went home with a DVD box set hastily bought from the local store by Obama’s novice aides.
Macron, by contrast, operates through loftier symbols. His official portrait is laden with more signals than a Renaissance court portrait; Donald Trump was invited to Bastille Day celebrations last year to see the military might of France and, by implication, the European contribution to Nato; and Macron chose to make his big speech on the refounding of European sovereignty in Greece in front of the Acropolis, the birthplace of democracy.
Last week Macron promised to sign a “Quirinal Treaty” of friendship with Italy, seizing on the treaty idea when suggested by a journalist at a press conference. He would like the European parliamentary seats vacated by the British to be elected on a trans-Europe basis. Nationalism replaced by federalism.
“Modern political life must rediscover a sense of symbolism,” Macron told the German Der Spiegel newspaper in October. “We need to develop a kind of political heroism. We need to be amenable again to creating grand narratives.”
Behind the symbolism lies a frenetic activism and an opportunist’s eye. With Germany preoccupied by coalition talks, the US on the verge of a breakdown, and Theresa May lost in Brexit, the opportunity for France to be the transformative leader of Europe is unparalleled. Context has given him greater credibility.
As a result, the roll call of power brokers beating a path to the Elysée is extraordinary. Equally, he travels. Since he became president Macron has visited Africa five times, helping to establish the G5 Sahel taskforce. He will go to Senegal next month. By contrast, no British prime minister has been to Africa since 2013 and the UK diplomatic footprint is diminishing.
In Saudi Arabia, Macron engineered the release of the Lebanese prime minister, Saad Hariri, and in Iran he has supported the nuclear deal.
Foreign Office ministers privy to ambassadorial cables from around the world say from August they started seeing the word France with increasing frequency. Macron himself says it is the duty of France to talk to everyone.
There is also a mission to explain. In two marathon speeches on French foreign policy he has set out his determination to take France beyond the old debates between Atlanticism and Gaullism. Security, migration, optimism, multilateralism and unashamed support for a more integrated Europe emerged as the great themes.
The extent to which his recent ubiquity will have been a substitute for impact will emerge in the years ahead. Both Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande started with overseas ambition.
Ultimately, the fate of his European mission rests in Berlin, and the willingness of Angela Merkel to go along with a version of his plans for strengthening the eurozone with a minister and a budget. Merkel, more attuned to the resistance to such ideas in eastern Europe, is under pressure from her SPD partners to agree.
Privately, Macron – at least before his election – was contemptuous of the Brexit decision. He will look for every possible national advantage on financial services, but his aides insist that however the talks end, he wants Britain, one of the world’s great military powers, to remain engaged in European security and foreign policy.
After all, the Bayeux tapestry is an elegant warning to the French and the British of the consequences of falling out.