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Europe’s new de facto leader?

29 April 2022

Macron’s victory matters for the Continent, not just for France, says Alexander Faludy


President Macron and his wife, Brigitte, celebrate his victory in the French Presidential election in Paris, on Sunday

President Macron and his wife, Brigitte, celebrate his victory in the French Presidential election in Paris, on Sunday

EMMANUEL MACRON strode to the podium below the Eiffel Tower on Sunday night for his victory speech, accompanied by the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” and crowds waving the EU’s golden-stars flag alongside France’s tricolour. Many held one flag in each hand.

The scene befitted a President who pitched his re-election bid as “a referendum on the European Union” — and who now stands in the bloc’s de facto leadership position, vacated by Angela Merkel’s retirement as German Chancellor last autumn (Comment, 24 September 2021).

President Macron scored a convincing victory over the far-Right challenger, Marine Le Pen, in a second-round “run-off”: he garnered 58.5 per cent to her 41.5 per cent, in exit polls released by French broadcasters at 8 p.m. local time on Sunday. Although some mainland polling stations closed only at 7 p.m., and counting would take many hours, French exit polling has a history of heightened accuracy, and Ms Le Pen conceded rapidly.

President Macron’s victory speech emphasised national unity, offering an olive branch to Le Pen’s supporters and foregrounding willingness to address concerns that prompted so many to vote against the political Establishment. “I’m aware of the divisions in our nation which have led some people to extreme votes,” he said. “I respect them. . . It’s my responsibility to listen while protecting the most fragile.”

HIS speech was characterised as much by an agenda for Europe as for France, however. During the election campaign, Ms Le Pen appealed to French “sovereigntist” sentiment by proposing a reform programme returning power from Brussels institutions to national governments — possibly as a step to “Frexit”. In victory, the President also appealed to national pride, but did so by emphasising his leadership of Europe on an integration path shaped by French priorities.

“I’ll defend France, its vital interests, its image, and its message: I make that commitment to you. I’ll defend Europe, the common destiny the peoples of our continent have given themselves,” he said. More concretely, he promised “to rebuild the link between Europe and the people it is made up of, between Europe and citizens . . . to bring every woman and man together, ready to confront the immense challenges awaiting us, and to act [on] . . . the digital revolution, the ecological transition, Europe’s recovery”.

President Macron is well placed to lead the European agenda in some respects, but notably weaker in others.

France is generally perceived as the EU’s “second power” relative to Germany, in terms of economic power and population size. Circumstances have, however, edged the President into poll position among member-state leaders in recent months.

Chancellor Merkel’s retirement advantages President Macron as the most experienced remaining leader of a large EU state, especially given her successor, Olaf Schulz’s, lack of other compensating, foreign-policy expertise. Furthermore, the President enjoys significant influence with southern/central EU members, thanks to the part that he has played in shaping the generous terms of the EU’s post-Covid recovery package.

Headship of the EU’s only nuclear power (and UN Security Council member) gives the President added clout at a time of geopolitical crisis arising from a war on the EU’s eastern border. This is especially so given Germany’s loss of prestige after a weak and vacillating response to President Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. Berlin’s fulsome rhetorical support for Kyiv has been undercut by slowness in cutting commercial ties with Russia, and painful slowness in supplying promised weapons to Ukraine.

Against these advantages must be set President Macron’s longstanding difficulties of character and judgement.

Closing the gap between Europe’s institutions and its people is a tall order for a politician seen as remote and technocratic domestically. President Macron’s characterisation, in 2019, of NATO as “brain-dead”, and his consequent call for the EU to develop “strategic autonomy”, separate from the United States, appears embarrassing in hindsight. NATO is playing an essential part in reinforcing the EU’s borders against potential further Russian aggression. Even traditionally non-aligned EU states, such as Sweden and Finland, have recently expressed an interest in joining the alliance to guarantee their security.

PERHAPS the greatest challenge for President Macron in fulfilling his aim, however, is his inability to articulate a definite basis for the common “European” ethos that he pugnaciously seeks to protect — warning in his victory speech that “Our [European] civilisation is at stake, our way of living, of being free, of promoting our values, our common enterprises and our hopes.”

At home, he has had some past success in contrasting militant Islamist “separatism” with French Republican laïcité, but it is hard to “scale” this nationally specific calculus to a European context — or apply it to other challenges, such as the inhumanity of Russia’s military ambitions.

In looking for such a basis, he might do worse than contemplate the words of the EU’s French co-founder Robert Schuman (1958): “We are called to bethink ourselves of the Christian basics of Europe by forming a democratic model of governance . . . a ‘community of peoples’ in freedom, equality, solidarity, and peace deeply rooted in Christian basic values.”

The Revd Alexander Faludy is a freelance journalist. He lives in Budapest and Cambridge.

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