PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron is hopping from one diplomatic meeting to another, but there’s one place he isn’t going — and that’s the U.N. General Assembly in New York.
Macron is not alone. Other heavyweights aren’t showing up to the global diplo fest either.
In addition to the absences of China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladmir Putin, Britain’s Rishi Sunak and India’s Narendra Modi are also skipping the gathering in New York next week.
All have varying and different reasons for not attending the meeting that draws heads of state and government from across the world. The likely result is that U.S. President Joe Biden, and his speech, are likely to get even more attention than in previous years.
While Putin and Xi frequently skip the gathering, Sunak and Macron’s absences have raised eyebrows. Both the U.K. and France hold permanent seats at the U.N. Security Council, meaning that only one leader of the five countries that have permanent seats will be attending the get-together.
According to several French officials, Macron has scheduling conflicts as he’ll be hosting King Charles III, for a visit than has already been postponed once before over unrest in France. Keir Starmer, leader of the Labour Party in the U.K., also plans to meet with Macron in Paris next week. The French president will also be welcoming Pope Francis in the port city of Marseille next weekend.
Officials from the Elysée Palace didn’t provide comment for this story.
Sunak’s absence is even more surprising given that it would be his first General Assembly since taking his post last October. That said, Sunak and his Conservative Party have taken a beating in the polls recently, suggesting election troubles ahead and an increased domestic focus.
The New York meeting also comes on the heels of the G20 summit in India, which delivered a communiqué in support of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but which didn’t include a direct condemnation of Russia.
“Macron has just been at the G20 summit. He will have done a lot of foreign policy, so there’s a question of balance and time,” said a French minister, who was granted anonymity to candidly discuss a sensitive topic.
“The other point of UNGA is to make a big speech, [but] there hasn’t been an overhaul of French foreign policy so there’s no need to do one every year,” the minister added.
The French president also has his own diplomatic initiatives he wants to breathe life into, such as his New Global Financial Pact that he hopes to gather support for.
In France there are concerns, even within Macron’s own ranks, that the president’s absence sends a negative signal to the world given France’s stated support of multilateralism and the president’s own enthusiasm for diplomacy. Anne Genetet, an MP for Macron’s Renaissance party, said she was “very surprised” to hear he wasn’t going.
“It’ll be a loss for us … I’m convinced going to UNGA is useful, there are the big speeches and the diplomatic conversations that are really intense. It’s essential to understand and convince others,” she said.
Macron has only skipped UNGA once before, in the wake of America’s decision to strike up a security alliance with Australia and the U.K.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will also be attending this year’s General Assembly, hoping to gather support beyond its Western allies for its 10-point peace plan, an initiative Paris has energetically supported. According to a senior French diplomat, the president’s absence doesn’t dent that support. “It’s not because the president isn’t going, that French diplomacy stops,” he said.
However, the decision may suggest shifts in the way France sees the world and where it should invest its diplomatic energy.
“The U.N. is running out of steam, losing visibility, who knows nowadays who the U.N secretary-general is?” asked a former French official, who like others quoted here was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic, noting a “shift in the world’s center of gravity” toward the east and the south.
This summer, Macron tried to get an invitation to the BRICS summit in South Africa, and over the past years, France has increasingly invested in Asian forums such as APEC or ASEAN.
Nahal Toosi, Paul de Villepin, Sarah Paillou contributed reporting.