Macron is no Napoleon and no Talleyrand: Floating his proposal of sending troops to Ukraine was a work of stunning political ineptness that only boosted Putin

Assembly of Princes in Erfurt in1808. Napoleon receives emissaries of the Austrian emperor, Baron Vincent - Right: Tsar Alexander and the kings of Westphalia and Saxony - with Talleyrand in the background (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)


Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord must have been the world’s greatest political survival artist. He enjoyed a skyrocketing career throughout the most turbulent time in French history, managing to be a force in revolutionary France in all three phases: Pre-revolutionary, revolutionary and post-revolutionary.

When he died at the respectable age of 84 in 1838, the world witnessed the passing of probably the greatest diplomat who ever lived. One of his most memorable lines is: “A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe’, a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no’, and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.”

I assume this is what current French President Emmanuel Macron had on his mind when he floated the idea of sending Western troops to Ukraine. Like Talleyrand, Macron’s suggestion was more a “maybe” (and therefore a no) than an actual “yes” (and therefore a maybe).

Alas, even the word games of diplomats must be underpinned by real power and authority, and this is where Macron is falling short in comparison with Talleyrand. He is definitely no Napoleon and also no Louis XVIII – who became the King of France after Napoleon’s fall from power. Having approval ratings barely toping 30 per cent and being constantly confronted with public unrest from the “yellow wests” to the farmers protests, he seems more like a Louis XVI shortly before being deposed in 1792 – although Macron will in all likelihood be spared his ultimate fate, being beheaded by the guillotine in front of a cheering mob.

Talleyrand’s France was a force to be reckoned with, and one of the major powers at the time. Even the defeat of Napoleon does not alter the fact that French ideas and French customs dominated the old continent and beyond, with the Statue of Liberty still bearing witness to French ideals in New York harbour.

Nowadays, France is facing domestic and international decline: The role of its philosophers and movie makers is marginal at best, and the influence it maintained in the countries of its former empire is quickly fading, ceding ground to Russia and China. 

Another – probably misattributed – quote from Talleyrand is “This is worse than a crime, it’s a mistake.”

Whether he said it or not, he certainly understood that in international politics great powers often act criminally, but if they do so the results should be worth it. Macron announcing his idea of deploying troop to Ukraine is no crime, but it most definitely is a mistake. It may even be an outright blunder.

Being no equal to Talleyrand, however, Macron doubled down on his rhetoric: “Many of the people who say ‘never, never’ today were the same people who said ‘never, never tanks, never, never planes, never, never long-range missiles, never, never this’ two years ago.”

Macron, warming up to his delusions of grandeur, warned that “we will do whatever it takes to ensure that Russia cannot win this war.” This “whatever”, unfortunately, seems not to include actual arms deliveries to Ukraine. Based on the German Kiel Institute’s “Ukraine Support Tracker,” France has been a laggard in support for Kyiv. Germany has committed EUR 17.7bn, compared to a meager EUR 635mn from Paris. 

At this point, Macron is no second Napoleon, but a second Norton, the affable English madman who declared himself emperor of the United States in 1859. Alas, Emperor Norton never had the chance to do as much damage as Macron.

Macron’s declarations vis-à-vis Russia are all Putin could have hoped for. For two years, Moscow’s propaganda has told the world that the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war by the West against Russia, and that Ukraine is just a cover for the West’s long term plan to dismantle the Russian Federation.

The French president is now openly floating the idea that NATO countries should declare war on Russia (which would be the de facto effect of his proposal), while at the same time being unwilling to provide significant financial aid toe Ukraine.

Putin has scored a political hattrick: An empty threat with no teeth, disunity among NATO, and a massive propaganda victory.

France is a circus led by clowns, beginning with Macron down to his Prime Minister Gabriel Attal (whose only qualifications seemingly are being young and gay) and foreign minister Stéphane Sejourné (whose only qualifications seemingly are being  young and the former husband of the aforementioned Attal).

It is a sad state of affairs that the nation of Talleyrand has morphed into the nation of Macron.