PARIS (Reuters) - He is the man of the moment after winning the French presidency with ease, while she is in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons after gambling away a majority in the British parliament.
When Theresa May met Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday, their political fortunes could hardly have been more different and neither could their outlooks.
The French president is an ardent supporter of the European Union as the best defense against inequalities wrought by globalisation. The British prime minister wants to leave the bloc in “the national interest”.
While the two briefly raised Brexit - Macron said the door was open for Britain to change its mind and May said she was sticking to her time line - they were more interested in highlighting their common fight against terrorism.
Before heading for a dinner of duck liver pate and monkfish and a friendly soccer match between England and France, the two said they would work together to find new ways to encourage firms to clamp down on internet hate speech.
“We are launching a joint UK-French campaign to ensure that the internet cannot be used as a safe space for terrorists and criminals, and that it cannot be used to host the radicalising material that leads to so much harm,” May told a joint news conference on the grounds of France’s Elysee Palace.
“Crucially, our campaign will also include exploring creating a legal liability for tech companies if they fail to take the necessary action to remove unacceptable content.”
After two Islamist militant attacks in Britain in less than two weeks, May’s bid to clamp down on internet extremism has struck a chord with international leaders, especially Macron, whose country has suffered several jihadist attacks since 2015.
To honor the victims of the attacks on London and Manchester that killed 30, the French Republican Guard before the soccer match played the Manchester rock anthem “Don’t look back in anger” before a one-minute silence at the Stade de France, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in 2015.
“We have decided to go further on a concrete plan to reinforce the obligation of social media companies to remove content that promotes hate and terrorism online. Current measures are not enough,” said Macron.
Internet firms, such as Google and Twitter, say they are investing heavily and employing thousands of people to take down hate speech and violent content on their platforms, with evidence their efforts are working.
Making her first foreign visit since last Thursday’s election when May saw her Conservatives’ slim majority disappear after what several sources called “an awful campaign”, May was more upbeat after winning a stay of execution from her party.
Earlier, she even joked about her election performance, which saw an early double-digit lead in the polls collapse, squandered with the introduction of a policy on funding for elderly care, dubbed “the dementia tax” by the opposition.
Congratulating the parliamentary speaker on his re-election in London earlier in the day, she said: “At least someone got a landslide.”
She must still reach a deal to prop up her government with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which has raised concerns the start of Brexit talks may be held up - something she denied on Tuesday.
A spokesman for May’s office said talks with the DUP broke up for the night on Tuesday and were set to resume on Wednesday.
“What we’re doing in relation to the talks that we’re holding, the productive talks we’re holding with the Democratic Unionist Party, is ensuring that it is possible to, with their support, give the stability to the UK government that I think is necessary at this time,” May said.
“I confirmed to President Macron that the timetable for the Brexit negotiation remains on course and will begin next week.”
Her weakened authority has helped turn the tables on the “bloody difficult woman” she said she would portray at the negotiating table with the EU, putting her in the thrall of two wings of her party: the “purists” who want a clean break with the bloc, and the remainers who want closer ties.
Now 2-1/2 months after triggering Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty to start the talks, the EU has warned Britain that any further delay risks the negotiations’ failure.
Macron, who on a visit to London before winning the presidential election called on businesses in London to move to Paris to take advantage of the bloc’s single market, played down any risk, saying he wanted a good deal for both sides.
“The door of course is still open as long as Brexit negotiations have not been concluded, but a sovereign decision to leave the EU has been taken and I respect that decision,” Macron said, adding it would be difficult to walk back once exit talks began.
Additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Writing by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Peter Cooney