The three-hour face-off between Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in Versailles offered some fascinating geopolitical shadow play.
Macron went so far as to say that, “No major problem in the world can be solved without Russia.” On Syria’s war, which topped their agenda, he said it needs “an inclusive political solution.” While on terrorism, his guest offered: “It is impossible to fight a terrorist threat by dismantling the statehood of those countries that already suffer from some internal problems and conflicts.”
That’s hardly straight from the standard establishment playbook. More like a slight variation on 300 years of Franco-Russian diplomacy.
Putin and Macron got together to inaugurate an exhibition at the Grand Trianon in Versailles, in partnership with the Hermitage in St Petersburg, celebrating the 300th anniversary of Peter the Great’s visit to France – which proved one of the founding stones of a complex cultural-political cross-fertilization.
Peter not only drew on the royal palace of Versailles as part of the inspiration for his new capital, St Petersburg, he also modernized the entire empire using many of the Enlightenment ideals that first took root in France. It was under Peter’s rule that Russians were indelibly imprinted with a European identity.
Connections with current geopolitical juncture enhance the Versailles face-off’s appeal.
The St Petersburg Economic Forum – where quite a few CEOs from large European companies will be discussing business in Russia – starts later this week.
Late last week, a Nato summit in Brussels and a G7 summit in Taormina busted open deep divisions in the Western front, essentially pitting the EU against Donald Trump.
To say that the vast EU bureaucracy has been horrified is an understatement. In places like the Egmont – the Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels – the consensus might best be summarized as: Europeans would only matter if they put in a US$100 billion order for US defense equipment (each, of course), and stopped whining about the climate.
As this is not happening, the letter of the law is that every Nato member must spend 2% of GDP on defense, and “bad, bad” Germany should stop selling cars to the US.
No wonder then that a common European viewpoint is begging to emerge after some serious discussions inside the EU, which is that the only way out is for Europe to get its act together – politically, economically and militarily.
And it’s up to the Franco-German power couple to show the path to the region’s real strategic autonomy.
That’s the gist of the extraordinary statement by Chancellor Angela Merkel: “The times in which we can entirely depend on others are gone. This, I have experienced in the last few days. We Europeans must take our destiny in our own hands.”
This would suggest that not only are there a few icebergs blocking the Atlanticist channels, there must also be a serious reappraisal under way of Europe’s relationship with Russia. (There are no significant German or French business interests that want sanctions against Russia to persist.)
Merkel could not have gone out on this limb unless she was fully supported domestically, and prepared to position the economic might of Berlin at the vanguard of this “Reformation.”
And that’s really the big story following the show of irrelevance at the G7 in Taormina.
Which is where Emmanuel Macron comes in.
All hail the Philosopher King
The supine French media – largely controlled by a handful of banking, financial and telecom interests – has gone ga ga over Macron’s handling of what is a de facto “presidential monarchy.”
Only the terminally naïve would deny that Macron was the candidate of globalized Atlanticist elites in thrall to the diktats of the financial system. As a bonus, he also dutifully follows the standard Russophobia – as in his charges against Moscow of pursuing a “hybrid strategy, combining military intimidation and an information war.”
Macron was skillfully sold as an “outsider” – yet he is backed by the ultimate French insider A-list. Its members include the Rothschilds; the Montaigne Institute; the Saint-Simon Foundation; the Terra Nova think tank; insurance giant AXA; Jacques Attali; Alain Minc; LVMH boss Bernard Arnault (also a media tycoon); and telecom and media billionaire Patrick Drahi.
He is, according to an elite insider cited by Le Monde, a fantasy come true for members of Le Siècle – the premier elite club in Paris: “A left-winger implementing a pro-business policy.”
Nuances make “project Macron” even more attractive. Because he studied philosophy and was an assistant to the revered Paul Ricoeur, Macron has been extolled as a Philosopher King in the Platonic tradition. And that was even before his show-stopping initial performance on the global stage – yes, the Alpha Male Handshake Battle with Trump.
It gets quirkier. Ecstatic intellectual Macronites even attest he combines the burning ambition of Alcibiades – a precociously talented Athenian general with a penchant for political maneuvering – with the wisdom of Socrates. Well, at least Macron seems to prefer reading to tweeting and being fed one-line bullet points by his minions.
It’s always enlightening to remember that the Philosopher King, as Plato conceived it, was not exactly a democrat. After all, Plato considered “the people” as something like a “huge beast,” filled with irrational passions, and unworthy of comparison with the demonstrative knowledge espoused by a lover of ideas.
Macron’s unbridled – Platonic? – ambition should not be underestimated. Putin, a master of cunning, did detect it in Versailles. Trump tried to charm him, calling Macron “my guy” in the presidential race. Macron, described by his circle as supremely confident, is sure he may be able to charm/bend Merkel – arguably a decaying quantity – into a “Leader of the West” Philosopher King role.
No wonder Macron is an EU superstar. He is seen as a savior because he embodies their ultimate wishful thinking that one day, inside the EU, inside the UN, in the G7, and even in Nato, globalized Europeans will be undivided on defense, trade, foreign policy – and their own interests.