DAVOS, Switzerland — French President Emmanuel Macron laid claim to the mantle of leader of the free world on Wednesday, with an ambitious speech before a packed assembly at the World Economic Forum.
He sought to place France at the center of a mission to revamp global capitalism while spreading its spoils more equitably, forging a mode of commerce centered on innovation, yet bearing protections for workers set back by change.
Mr. Macron’s hourlong speech before the annual gathering of the world’s wealthy and powerful in the Swiss Alps came on the same day that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni issued their own forceful speeches toward advancing European integration, while defending the notion of international cooperation.
Collectively, they signaled that Europe — only a year ago dismissed as a crippled economic realm fraught with political recrimination — has regained force. Europe’s leaders left no doubt that they aim to channel their newfound economic strength toward advancing the project of European integration first launched in the middle of the last century, seen as an antidote to the brutalities of two world wars.
President Trump was not in the room (he is not due to speak here until Friday). But the shadow of his America First policies hung heavily. The three speeches resonated as a broad rebuttal of the doctrine that Mr. Trump has made his own.
In contrast to Mr. Trump’s pullback from international trade agreements and his renouncing of the Paris climate accord, the European leaders emphasized their commitment to prosperity through global commerce.
In place of Mr. Trump’s unilateralism, the three European leaders pledged to strengthen the bonds of the European Union and the 19 nations that use the euro currency.
They underscored their commitment to multilateral approaches as the salve to trouble, including widening economic inequality, terrorism and the ravages of climate change.
“If we want to avoid this fragmentation of the world, we need a stronger Europe, it’s absolutely key,” Mr. Macron declared. “France is back. France is back at the core of Europe, because we will never have any French success without a European success.”
A year ago in Davos, the role of world-leading defender of globalization fell to Chinese President Xi Jinping. His address followed Britain’s shocking decision to leave the European Union, and only days before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.
To an audience fearful that the global, rules-based trading system was unraveling, Mr. Xi’s commitment to internationalism drew a mixture of relief and acclaim. But China was at best a compromised claimant to that role, given its preferential credit for state-owned companies, its theft of intellectual property and its jailing of dissidents and journalists.
Mr. Macron put forth his own credentials as a leader singularly able to help guide Europe and the global economy.
“Our vision, our DNA in terms of the relationship between freedom and the furtherance of individual rights, is unique,” Mr. Macron said.
He described a sense of responsibility to translate French values into a form of capitalism that can deliver growth along with increased opportunities for middle-class and working people.
“It’s a transformational moment for Europe,” said Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. “There is clearly determination to deepen European governance. These leaders do believe in the rule of law. They do believe in globalization.”
Among the many casualties of Europe’s decade-long economic crisis was a sense of collective purpose among the region’s leaders. The downturn was exacerbated by the unique defects of the euro — a shared currency that operates without a joint budget or political agreement among member states.
Mr. Macron has devoted his first months in office to arguing for the creation of a shared eurozone finance minister along with euro-wide budgets, enabling better coordination of economic policies when crisis returns.
Ms. Merkel has expressed cautious support while assiduously avoiding blessing anything that smacks of transferring German wealth to the less prosperous countries of the Mediterranean — a radioactive proposition among German voters.
The German chancellor has in recent weeks grappled with complex negotiations toward forming a coalition government composed of her Christian Democratic Union and the more left-leaning Social Democratic Party after inconclusive elections last fall.
Many analysts have assumed that political fragility in Germany would complicate Mr. Macron’s efforts to win German support for his integration proposals. But the coalition taking shape would bring a more pro-European orientation, many analysts say.
“I came here thinking about the fractured world, and one day later I feel I’m in a converged world,” said Charles-Edouard Bouée, chief executive of Roland Berger, a global consultancy with offices in Shanghai and Munich.
In her speech here on Wednesday, Ms. Merkel reaffirmed her commitment to completing a so-called banking union, a system that shares the risks of financial breakdown across national borders.
She cast the drive to better integrate Europe as a historical responsibility of grave import, noting that the concept of the European Union dates back to the effort to limit future bloodshed in Europe by building economic ties.
“We have to ask ourselves, when we have fewer and fewer people who remember these events of history, have we learned the lessons of history?” Ms. Merkel asked.
“Many people seem to worry, will multilateralism find an answer to the problems that mankind has in a fair and equitable way?” Ms. Merkel said, seemingly referring to Mr. Trump. “We think that shutting ourselves off against the world, isolating ourselves, will not lead to a good future. Protectionism is not the right answer.”
For years, Italy has been the face of Europe’s most deep-seated problems: its banks stuffed with terrible loans, its communities full of young people who have moved in with their parents for lack of jobs.
But even Italy is now sharing in Europe’s economic expansion, though joblessness remains rampant. The country’s prime minister used the stage here to argue that now is the moment to attack economic inequality. Either that, or the forces of populism will triumph, he warned — a clear worry about Italy’s approaching national elections, and the ascendant Five Star party, which has been hostile to the euro.
“We must not give in to the idea of a world destined to be split between a cosmopolitan digital elite and an army of precarious and underpaid local workers,” Mr. Gentiloni said. “This worry, and these frustrations, are our main concern.”
These sorts of mission statements are increasingly dominating the political conversation in Europe — nowhere more than in France, where Mr. Macron, a former investment banker, has pledged to make his country more appealing to business while strengthening unemployment benefits and training for castoff workers.
The centerpiece of Mr. Macron’s efforts are the labor reforms he introduced last summer, making it easier for employers to terminate workers. In his speech here, he cast that not as a means of relinquishing labor to the unsentimental winds of capitalism, but rather giving start-up companies relief from the strictures of national labor contracts negotiated by unions.
Employers have in recent weeks used their newly acquired authority to fire to do just that, while the supposed Nordic-style worker protections Mr. Macron has promised have yet to materialize.
Mr. Macron promised to fill the void, vowing to spend 15 billion euros — about $18.6 billion — over the next five years on education and retraining.
“If I cannot explain to people that globalization is good for them, and that it will help them develop their own lives, then they will be the nationalists, the extremists who want to get out of the system,” he said. “And they will win in every country.”