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May 09, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Elected on a reform agenda for France, President-elect Emmanuel Macron will quickly discover that foreign policy — an area not yet in his comfort zone — will eat up buckets of his time. On Europe, Macron has been crystal clear and vocal: keeping France at the center of the European Union was the dominant theme of his campaign. On global crises beyond Europe, such as North Korea, France’s youngest ever president has kept his cards closer to his chest.

That is partly because, in previous jobs as an investment banker and from 2014-16 as France’s economy minister, foreign policy wasn’t among Macron’s areas of expertise. His careful, measured forays into foreign affairs during the campaign signaled that Macron is aware of his own limitations and is allowing himself time to bone up on the issues before crafting his diplomacy.

“You have politicians who know that they don’t know and want to learn. And you have those who don’t know that they don’t know and who shoot off their mouths. He belongs, quite clearly, to the first category,” says Francois Heisbourg, a leading French expert on foreign affairs, defense and terrorism who has been advising Macron and his campaign team.

Macron has given some broad outlines but, on more than one occasion, has been wishy washy. On the Middle East, Macron has repeatedly said his top priority will be to continue the fight against the Islamic State group, which has claimed or inspired multiple attacks in France since 2015 that killed more 230 people. French warplanes have flown thousands of sorties and carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Iraq and Syria against the extremists, working in an international coalition.

Macron has also said he wants an engineered exit from power of Syrian President Bashar Assad. He labeled Assad “a criminal” after a sarin gas attack killed dozens in the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4.

The president-elect said the use of the deadly nerve agent should be punished with U.N.-sanctioned military force if Assad’s involvement is proven. But Macron has also expressed concerns that Syria could become an even more chaotic failed state if Assad is ousted suddenly, without a carefully planned transition.

“It’s very complicated,” Macron said last month. “We have to be serious.” With regard to Russia, Macron set himself apart from other candidates in the election by adopting a tougher stance toward President Vladimir Putin.

He said he wants to work with Russia, which backs Assad’s regime, in the fight against IS. But he laced his appeals for cooperation with warnings that Moscow “doesn’t share our values and preferences.”

Vowing not to be “accommodating” with Russia, he said last month: “We need an extremely demanding dialogue.” Macron favors renewed peace talks to stabilize the situation in eastern Ukraine in order to gradually diminish sanctions against Russia.

Macron’s tone hardened as the campaign wore on. There was widespread — but as yet unproven — speculation that Russia may have had a hand in the document leak that targeted Macron’s campaign in the final hours of the race.

Foreign affairs expert Heisbourg said that Russia and France’s allies will be watching how Macron now handles the aftermath of the hack, which is being investigated by the French government’s cybersecurity agency, ANSSI.

“The cyberattack was timed exquisitely. Russia’s fingerprints were all over the place. This was not simply a belated attempt to disrupt the campaign. It was a gauntlet, a challenge,” said Heisbourg, an adviser at the Paris think-tank Foundation for Strategic Research.

“He will be expected to respond one way or another to the challenge,” Heisbourg said. With the U.S., Macron says he wants continued intelligence-sharing and cooperation at the United Nations, and he hopes to persuade President Donald Trump not to pull Washington out of a global climate change accord.

Macron, committed to free trade, and Trump, who campaigned on promises to protect American jobs from foreign competition, appear poles apart. They’re also from different generations — Macron is 39, Trump 70.

They will likely meet for the first time at a NATO summit in Belgium on May 25 and they could surprise everyone by showing they have more in common than first meets the eye. Macron’s fluent English could help make personal chemistry easier. Both beat the odds and expectations by winning unlikely election victories. Both positioned themselves as outsiders in their respective political systems, which they promised to change. Trump was among the first world leaders to congratulate Macron on “his big win,” in a tweet Sunday night.

“They flouted all the rules of the established game. They were unelectable and they both got elected,” Heisbourg said. “They will probably find each other interesting.” Trump used foreign policy on the campaign trail to project himself as defender of U.S. interests, notably with China, which he called a “tremendous problem.” In power, he continues to shoot from the hip, recently calling North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un a “smart cookie.”

Macron has been more circumspect. One exception was during a televised debate with other candidates in March, when he launched into a long-winded and muddled explanation of what he called his “diplomatic roadmap.”

“It was miserable. It was exactly what you shouldn’t do: shooting off your mouth when you actually have a weak basis of knowledge, have not formed any reasoned and structured doctrine, and you just jabber and jabber,” Heisbourg said.

“That was seen as a mistake. He tended to avoid repeating it.”

Associated Press writer Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.

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