A tale of two leaders: What Trudeau and Macron can, and should, learn from each other

If one thing became clear during the prime minister’s three-day overseas trip, it is that Justin Trudeau has much to learn from French President Emmanuel Macron and vice versa.

As the torch-bearers for liberal, progressive democratic ideals, the two are often on the same page on issues such as gender equality and climate change.

Given the number of times they agreed with each other’s statement or point of view at a closing news conference Friday, one could be forgiven for expecting them to finish each other’s sentences.

They have — in their own ways — benefited from being treated like international political rock stars, albeit ones who have recently lost their shine.

Both telegenic and smooth defenders of Western democratic values, they have railed against the rise of authoritarianism, the far-right and extremism.

They have together faced a populist backlash in their countries, leading to sagging poll numbers that, in the case of Trudeau, raise the possibility of defeat at home this fall.

The Trump factor

But the two of them are studies in contrast in ways you might not expect, and that was also made clear this week as they navigated the convoluted, contradictory tides of Donald Trump-era alliances.

Whereas Trudeau has a cool, somewhat restrained relationship with the U.S. president, Macron appeared to have been quite chummy, choosing to spend D-Day commemorations in Normandy with Trump rather than with his intellectual soulmate.

We need to show democracy is effective– Emmanuel Macron, French president

It was, most certainly, an exercise in realpolitik, given the importance of the United States, but Macron used the occasion of his speech on the beach to defend multilateral institutions straight to Trump’s face.

Asked whether he thought he’d gotten through to Trump, Macron almost shrugged: “I cannot vouch for what other people take from my statements.”

Western democracies “are undergoing a crisis,” he said. “We need to show democracy is effective.” 

That he could get away with saying many of the things he does, and not face a rolling thunder of Twitter rage from Trump, as Trudeau did following last year’s Charlevoix, Que., G7, is worthy of note by the prime minister.

Both leaders appear to have come to the conclusion that Trump will do what Trump will do, but Macron appears to be more effective in getting the mercurial U.S. president to at least listen to things he may not like or appreciate.

It will be extraordinarily critical in the coming months to have more than one credible voice arguing for Western democratic values.

And it is on that point that Macron could take a few lessons from his Canadian friend.

Town hall boost

Love him or hate him, Justin Trudeau puts himself out there to answer questions, from the media, and from the public in the venue of unscripted town halls.

There was clearly an edginess and impatience in the French president’s demeanour as stepped forward to answer questions from journalists on Friday.

Thirty minutes into the ordeal, after delivering a 10-minute windy, largely empty, opening statement and following the posing of only one question, Macron slipped a note to an aid suggesting he had had enough.  

It was clear what was going on as the aid slipped around the edge of the room to the Canadian delegation to deliver the bad news that the event would be shut down after one additional question from a French journalist. 

So it was much to the annoyance and anger of the assembled media. The aid tried to smooth it over by saying Macron had been answering questions for 60 minutes, when in fact most digital recording counters showed from the beginning to end just over 40 minutes had passed.

Trudeau looked uncomfortable, even annoyed, as he and Macron slipped away from the podium. It was clear he was prepared to answer more questions.

Shutting down media early

It is, according to some of the prime minister’s staff, not the first time the French have shut down media events early. 

The moment is instructive because it plays straight into the narrative of populists who claim the global elite are not only out of touch but unaccountable. 

There is value in being a Trump whisperer, but often there is no better nor more dramatic demonstration that democracy is effective than when leaders put themselves out there and don’t just pay lip-service to the notion of accountability.

It is important to have effective, credible voices on issues such as gender equality, the environment and social justice because in 2020 the world’s leading democracies, the G7, will gather in the United States for their annual meeting (France hosts in 2019), and the world’s leading economies, the G20, will be hosted by Saudi Arabia. 

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