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Macron's Burst Of Global Activity Isn't Boosting His Popularity At Home

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

French President Emmanuel Macron has been doing a lot of international diplomacy in recent weeks. Analysts say he's looking to give France a larger role on the world stage. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, all this energy abroad won't necessarily boost his popularity at home.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Emmanuel Macron was the first world leader to arrive in Beirut after a mammoth explosion rocked the Lebanese capital last month, killing several hundred people and displacing thousands in the former French colony.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Macron strode through the rubble, surrounded by crowds furious at their own government. The French president said he understood their anger and promised to help. But while he was being welcomed like a hero in Beirut, back in France Macron's ratings hovered around 39%. Retiree Helene Fritsch says she voted for him, but he had no business going to Lebanon.

HELENE FRITSCH: When I saw pictures on TV of Macron and all the Lebanese people, as if he was their president, I was amazed.

BEARDSLEY: Fritsch says Macron should deal with France's problems first. COVID-19 is on the rise where schools have reopened, and Macron is hoping to get the economy going. Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director and columnist at the newspaper Le Monde, says Macron can't help trying to solve the world's problems.

SYLVIE KAUFFMANN: That's very much Macron's style. He thinks he can play a role more or less everywhere.

BEARDSLEY: Macron has also been weighing in on issues not within the French sphere of influence, like sending a warship to the eastern Mediterranean, where Greece and Turkey are in a dispute over maritime borders. Ziya Meral is an expert on Turkey and defense issues with the Royal United Services Institute in London.

ZIYA MERAL: Macros has clearly signaled his foreign policy ambitions to position France as the game-setter and the strategic powerhouse on issues in the region.

BEARDSLEY: Analysts say the French president is filling the gap created by a missing and largely discredited U.S. Dominique Moisi, an adviser with the Montaigne Institute, says Macron's international showmanship burnishes his image to a point.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: The French are pleased to see that their country is active in the world. So the international image of France matters a lot for the image the French have of themselves.

BEARDSLEY: But, Moisi says, ultimately Macron will be judged on his ability to fight COVID-19 and repair the French economy. There is one area of foreign policy where the pandemic may have helped him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Speaking French).

CHANCELLOR ANGELA MERKEL: (Speaking German).

BEARDSLEY: It has strengthened the Franco-German axis. The workaholic Macron invited German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a bilateral summit at his vacation villa last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In a joint press conference, Macron said the two leaders shared a deep conviction that Europe must assert its own strategic goals and sovereignty in a world increasingly defined by the U.S. and China. The enormity of the pandemic has also pushed Merkel to abandon Germany's long opposition to EU-backed debt and support a European-wide recovery package. That's a huge win for Macron, says Le Monde's Kauffmann.

KAUFFMANN: It was really on his European agenda. And this agenda was not progressing fast enough for his taste, but the pandemic gave a sense of urgency to those reluctant member states and - who eventually accepted this new dynamic.

BEARDSLEY: Kauffmann says it remains to be seen whether the new dynamic will mean a new era of European unity and assertiveness or will fade with the passing of the pandemic.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "HIGH SUNSET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.