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Wed 24 Jan 2018 11:39 AM

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Merkel, Macron take Davos spotlight ahead of Trump show

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the main opening address, defending free trade

Merkel, Macron take Davos spotlight ahead of Trump show
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a speech during the World Economic Forum WEF 2018 annual meeting on January 23 2018 in Davos eastern Switzerland AFP PHOTO Fabrice COFFRINI

European leaders take the stage at the Davos summit Wednesday, jostling to position themselves as a counterweight to US President Donald Trump before his "America First" show rolls into town.

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives in the Swiss ski resort fresh from rallying big business bosses on Monday in his drive for a "renaissance" in French and world business.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on the other hand, needs to settle her own leadership problems before leading the resistance to Trump, who appears on Friday.

Merkel was late in confirming that she would attend, tearing herself away from efforts to form a new government back home after an election setback in September.

"Merkel doesn't have a government yet. Macron is the new deal," one prominent business delegate at Davos, PR company boss Richard Edelman, told AFP.

For German economic daily Handelsblatt, Merkel is heading to Davos with her hands "tied".

It said she will be obliged to "stay in the shadow of Macron and Trump".

Macron is riding high, having managed to push through sensitive labour and tax reforms in France.

"The time when Merkel could assume that Europe could soldier on under her leadership, but under a very weak leadership in France, is over," Judy Dempsey of Carnegie Europe, a think tank, wrote in a blog post.

"Emmanuel Macron has radically changed the dynamics, the pace, and the ambition of the European Union."

From Versailles to Davos

At his pre-Davos gathering at the Versailles palace on Monday, the 40-year-old centrist Macron bathed in the attentions of bosses from companies such as Facebook and Google, who announced major investments in France.

"He's the hope. He's a guy who has built his own party... He has an ambitious reform package," said Edelman.

The Europeans will grab the spotlight at Davos after India and Canada rallied Tuesday against Trump's protectionist stance.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave the main opening address, defending free trade.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech on the opening day of the World Economic Forum (WEF) 2018 annual meeting. (Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian premier Justin Trudeau weighed in later on Tuesday, celebrating the announcement of a new Asia-Pacific trade agreement between 11 countries to replace one that Trump pulled out of last year.

Several other European leaders are also speaking on Wednesday, at the start of a potentially turbulent year for the continent.

Italy's Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni will give an address, less than two months ahead of general elections in his country.

Greece's left-wing Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose country is looking to emerge from its international bailout programme, joins a panel discussion on "Stabilising the Mediterranean".

And there will be a talk by King Felipe VI of Spain, which is grappling with a political crisis over independence demands in the Catalonia region.

Delegates will have to wait until Thursday to hear from British Prime Minister Theresa May, who is struggling with questions over the future of Britain's trade relations as it prepares to leave the European Union.

But British International Trade Secretary Liam Fox said he was undeterred by Macron's charm offensive, and said the Davos meetings were the perfect opportunity to press London's case.

"There is a strong willingness to do business with the UK, but then who doesn't want to get access to the world's fifth biggest economy?" Fox told AFP in an interview.

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