France this week kicks off meetings under its presidency of the club for the world’s seven most developed nations as questions mount over the relevance of the group at a time of tension between Europe and the United States.
President Emmanuel Macron has laid out an ambitious set of goals for his country’s Group of Seven (G7) presidency, which will culminate with a summit in the resort of Biarritz in August as the young leader seeks to burnish his credentials as a world statesman despite unrest at home.
But the French presidency is already shadowed by the fiasco of the last G7 summit in Canada, which ended in acrimony when US President Donald Trump refused to sign the final communique in a bitter spat over trade.
Trump’s foreign policy, meanwhile, has prompted divisions with European allies unprecedented since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, in particular over his pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
‘Relevance of the G7’
Foreign ministers from the G7 — the United States, Italy, France, Canada, Germany, Britain and Japan — are to meet on Friday and Saturday in the northern French resort of Dinard. The talks are preceded by a gathering of interior ministers in Paris on Wednesday and Thursday (3 and 4 April).
But in an early troubling sign of Washington’s enthusiasm, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo won’t be attending the Dinard meeting, with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan representing Washington instead.
The snub is all the more bruising given that the United States is due to assume the G7 presidency in 2020.
“It is quite complicated. And this is not just with Europe but also the other non-US actors” in the G7, said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, senior policy fellow and head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The French presidency does not just come after the Canadian one. It comes before the US one. The feeling in many circles is that this could be very important for the relevance of the G7 as a forum,” he told AFP.
Benjamin Haddad, director of the Future Europe initiative at the Atlantic Council, said the previous “G7s have not been very successful” and Trump did not favour multilateralism.
But he added “there will always be eagerness to work on areas of cooperation,” for example on dealing with China, as European capitals begin to indicate a tougher stance on Beijing.
‘Macron very involved’
Questions about the relevance of the G7 had intensified after the founding in 1999 of the G20 group of the 20 most developed nations, including China and fellow developing economic giant India, which are not in the G7.
The G7 dates back to a first meeting hosted outside Paris by French president Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1975 of six states, which later grew to seven with the addition of Canada.
Russia joined in the late 1990s but was ejected in 2014 following Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
“The aim is to build a consensus on the issues,” said a French diplomatic source, who asked not to be identified, ahead of the meeting of foreign ministers.
Recalling the acrimony during the Canadian presidency, the source added: “One of the challenges of the French presidency will be to manage all that. The president is very involved himself and we are in constant dialogue with our American counterparts.”
‘Room for convergence’
Macron has made the fight against inequality as globalisation intensifies the priority of the French G7 presidency, a goal aimed to resonate strongly at home with his government still facing the ire of “yellow vest” protesters on the streets of Paris.
France particularly wants to fight against inequality caused by environmental damage and the growing use of artificial intelligence, sending a message that while globalisation is to be welcomed, those who miss out must be helped.
“It is striking to see Macron promoting a bold and ambitious agenda,” Lafont Rapnouil said.
He said it was possible to find common ground on issues less divisive than trade, such as the fight against terrorism and cybercrime, but the question would always remain if leaders could agree to texts drafted by their officials.
“In Canada it flew and then Trump decided it was not for him. It will be interesting to see if there is room for convergence.”