Davos WEF
Davos WEF

France’s Macron ‘the man to watch’ in Davos for clues on where Europe is headed

Key Points
  • Macron is expected to give a speech to world leaders and business people gathered in the Alpine resort on January 24.
  • It is likely that he will promote a pro-European agenda of greater integration and reform while extolling the benefits of free trade.
French President Emmanuel Macron gestures during a session at the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, 2016, when he was French finance minister.

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to speak at this month's World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, with analysts saying the popular new leader will be Europe's man to watch there.

Macron is expected to give a speech to world leaders and business people gathered in the Alpine resort on January 24.

It is likely that he will promote a pro-European agenda of greater integration and reform while extolling the benefits of free trade.

The man to watch

Antonio Barroso, managing director and deputy director of research at Teneo Intelligence, told CNBC that Macron was "absolutely" the man to watch at the Forum, although President Donald Trump is poised to be the headline act.

"Last year, Chinese President Xi Jinping was the star, but certainly everyone will be looking at Macron this year as a key leader in the West," Barroso said. "While Chancellor Merkel in Germany is constrained by the political situation in the country, Macron is definitely stepping up as the stable face of Europe."

"He can also show the face of Europe that lots of leaders in the region want to project," he said, adding that Macron was a pro-business representative for the region at a time of economic recovery and stability after years of crisis.

Noting that the theme at Davos this year is "creating a shared future in a fractured world," Barroso said that Macron "embodies" this motto and was both a promoter of globalization and openness while wary of the need to ensure global trade was reciprocal, a point emphasized during his recent trade trip to China.

French President Emmanuel Macron (centre L) and his wife Brigitte Macron (centre R-red coat) are given a tour during a visit to the Great Mosque of Xian in the northern Chinese city of Xian on January 8, 2018. Macron on January 8 launched a state visit to China in Xian -- the starting point of the ancient Silk Road -- in a nod to his counterpart's scheme to revive the famous trading route.

"He promotes openness and globalization while trying to protect people from, and limit, the negative consequences of it," Barroso said.

"Davos is all about globalization and if there's a champion of globalization in the West, then it's Macron. He advocates openness but he's also worried about third countries outside the European Union (EU) taking advantage of the region's openness and he's keen to stress the need for reciprocity in trade relations, as we've seen from his comments in China (during the trade mission in January)," Barroso said.

Opportunity to shine

This year will be Macron's first speech at Davos as president since his election last May. Having fended off competition from far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, Macron's election manifesto and presidency so far have been characterized by a pro-business approach to reform and a renewed push for euro zone reform and closer integration.

Jonathan Fenby, managing director of European political research at TS Lombard, told CNBC that Macron, as the man who defeated Le Pen, preventing a far-right government in France, would be welcome with the Davos crowd.

"Macron should go down well at Davos. As a reformist who turned back the Le Pen populist wave and promises to re-shape French politics — and a winner to date. He is just what the WEF attendees will welcome," Fenby said.

"He strikes a high profile abroad and agrees to disagree with Trump. In general, one can say that there is a feeling in France which would be shared by Davos crowd that he is the last hope for structural change. He is greatly helped by the divisions and incoherence of the opposition but still has to school some of his parliamentary followers in the exercise of power, at which he seems to be doing quite well."

Home and away

The latest opinion polls show the president is popular among French voters, with one survey by Harris Interactive suggesting that 59 percent were optimistic for 2018, the highest level since 2010. The survey's results also marked a departure from mostly negative sentiment during former president Francois Hollande's tenure.

As well as galvanizing the French electorate — at least, most of those on the center-right rather than the left — and the wider euro zone establishment, analysts believe that Davos attendees will be listening to Macron's speech carefully for more clues to closer integration.

"This is an opportunity to revise his timeline for euro zone reform given that the delayed government formation in Berlin has upset the quick timetable he outlined in his September Sorbonne speech," Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Europe at Eurasia Group, told CNBC ahead of the Forum.

TS Lombard's Fenby noted Macron's "ambitious plans" to reform Europe and the euro zone, but said domestic politics and reforms were at the top of Macron's agenda.

"Macron's main priority is, of course, at home where he has set a three-year horizon for reform to have its impact," he said. "He started with the labor laws but now moves into the trickier matter of cutting the budget deficit. He sensibly puts stress on job training to cut unemployment."

France's economy is certainly on an upwards trajectory and is expected to have grown 1.8 percent in 2017, according to French statistics agency INSEE. Now voters and other leaders will watch whether Macron can continue to preside over its continued improvement.

"He (Macron) has often been accused of being the typical 'Davos man,' so this is his opportunity to show how he is using the positive international press to attract investment and improve the lives of those who perhaps didn't vote for him," Fenby said.

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