November 22, 2017
Friday, July 14, 2017

A new French revolution

French Ambassador Pierre Henri Guignard.
French Ambassador Pierre Henri Guignard.
French Ambassador Pierre Henri Guignard.
By Michael Soltys / Herald Staff

France’s Ambassador to Argentina Pierre Henri Guignard on bilateral relations between the two countries and what President Emmanuel Macron will bring to the global community

Mauricio Macri and Emmanuel Macron might have almost identical surnames but the overlap does not end there nor in being “new kids on the block” — French Ambassador Pierre Henri Guignard sees both leaders as committed to restoring republican values to their skeptical countries and both trusting to multilateralism in an uncertain world.

With Argentina playing a key global role as hosts to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and G20 summits at the end of this year and next, Guignard can look forward to an even closer relationship at a relatively early point in his mission (he arrived nine months ago), the envoy underlines in an interview to mark Bastille Day today. France sees Argentina as a “point of stability” in the region — as already demonstrated by previous French President François Hollande’s visit here early last year.

Far more recently (last weekend, in fact) Macri and Macron shared the G20 summit in Hamburg. The will to meet formally was there although this did not materialise as time ran out amid disruptive protests — yet there were informal encounters and telephone exchanges, Guiganrd reveals.

Macri’s avowed desire to bring Argentina back into the world has awakened “huge expectations” and interest in France — the confidence is such that there is already French investment. Asked to clarify (since potential investors elsewhere express interest but describe themselves as at the stage of identifying the areas of opportunity), Guignard explains that he is referring to the companies here like Total (oil), Peugeot and Renault (cars) and Carrefour (supermarkets) — all are taking advantage of this moment to invest in their operations. But there is no new investment — here a “wait and see” attitude (at least until the midterms) prevails in order to ensure that this is more than just another cycle.

The French envoy also highlights cultural ties as a key part of a good relationship with a keen mutual interest in each other’s cultures — Alliance Française has no less than 56 branches here. Traditional culture thus plays a strong role but also today’s digital technology — distance is no impediment to good ties.

A diplomat with long experience of the Americas, Guignard prefers not to single out any highlight in his nine months here, pointing to a generally smooth progress of the relationship — this is a good corner of the world for globalisation, he


A landscape transformed

Turning to France, Guignard gives an informed and interesting explanation of the Emmanuel Macron phenomenon. Asked by the Herald if the total transformation of the French political landscape in this year’s elections was not tantamount to the Sixth Republic demanded by leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the envoy replied that the Fifth Republic had “reached its limit” — but had at the same time found a saviour in Macron as its perfect prototype. Just as Charles de Gaulle had founded the Fifth Republic in 1958 to break the mold of the chaotic party politics of the Fourth Republic, so Macron has now arisen in a very similar fashion amid the disintegration of the traditional parties as one man expressing the nation.

Curiously enough, given that various voices in Argentina’s ruling coalition favour abolition of midterm elections, Guignard believes that the Fifth Republic started losing its balance when it effectively ceased to have midterms. The constitution had been designed as a semi-presidential democracy with a premier and a parliamentary vote of confidence but when Jacques Chirac reduced the presidential term from seven to five years, the legislative and presidential elections overlapped with generally overlapping results, thus effectively ending the semi-presidential system and the previous tendency to gridlock resolved by political “cohabitation.” This happened at the start of a century when the challenges of globalisation were dismantling the old politics.

Despite still being the world’s fifth economy, France entered this year’s elections with widespread negative perceptions of globalisation in general and the European Union in particular (a trend not limited to his country, Guignard commented) and with populist forces arising on both the right and left to tap this phenomenon while the traditional parties could offer no answers. Yet against this unpromising backdrop the majority went not to populism but to Macron.

Does Macron have a positive mandate or did he win “faute de mieux,” as the French say, the Herald asked — there was a low turnout and Macron’s party ended up with some 360 of the 577 National Assembly seats in the run-offs when up to 450 had been projected from the first-round results?

A positive and decisive victory, replied Guignard — Macron enjoys an extremely comfortable majority when the run-off mechanism lends itself to the opposition ganging up against the leaders. He ran a different and successful campaign drawing inspiration from Barack Obama with extensive use of social media — the party’s name En Marche should also be understood literally as meaning that its activists were on their feet going from door to door ringing bells (like the timbreos here). Yet as a result France’s parliament is now full of newcomers with little idea of the political game along the lines of the old film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — Macron’s institutional reform plans include thinning the ranks of senators and deputies.

Plenty of confidence

At this early stage the ambassador has plenty of confidence in France’s new president — if he can assemble a good team, if he can continue to reach the people and if he can place his reforms on the right track, he should be up to the job. Only 39 and entirely new to government (apart from a brief year as Hollande’s economy minister), Macron is an extremely intelligent man who has already achieved the seemingly impossible with his victory— his philosophical depth gives him a view of the world like few politicians.

Many international pundits contrast this resounding victory of a committed European with Brexit the previous year — Guignard was invited to comment. Britain’s sovereign decision which France both regrets and respects, he replied. Yet Brexit also opens up an opportunity to reform and tighten up the EU — an opportunity which must be taken not so much due to Britain as for France’s sake because the electoral strength of the National Front’s Marine Le Pen and Mélenchon reveals far too much discomfort with the EU. Despite all its problems, the EU remains the world’s leading market and its strongest economy. But Macron will await the result of the German elections in September before taking the next step.

And how did the venue of the Paris Accord on climate change see “Trexit” (i.e. Donald Trump’s no)? France not only stands by those agreements, Guignard replied, but is embarking on an ecological revolution with initiatives like no fuel-driven cars after 2040, phasing out all coal-fired power plants in the next five years and halving nuclear plants — France now seeks to be ahead of the pack after long being behind, he admits. France has also had more than its fair share of terrorist attacks in recent times. The Macron government plans to approach this problem at two levels. Firstly, a reappraisal of its international defence commitments (France left NATO in 1966, Guiganrd recalls) — resisting terrorism needs coalition partners. But also recognition that many terrorists are French-born as well as recent immigrants — the conditions for integrating the latter must be improved while the former must be offered an inclusive economy.

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