This may be a pivotal week in the faltering career of Emmanuel Macron. The French President has an opportunity to relaunch his presidency and seize the de facto leadership of Europe. Or he could fall flat on his face.
Several events are about to collide: the World War One centenary; the slow-motion retirement of Angela Merkel; rumours that Macron is suffering from nervous exhaustion; the hesitant French economy; the looming European elections; and more prosaically but menacingly, a French rural and outer-suburban revolt against a steep rise in petrol and diesel prices.
British eyes are inevitably fixed on Macron’s Brexit lunch (Brunch?) with Theresa May in Albert, on the Somme battlefields; the French leader’s hopes are pinned on an ambitious speech that he will make to launch a three-day international peace forum in Paris on Sunday, the centenary of the Armistice.
The oration has been preceded by a seven-day presidential pilgrimage through the areas of eastern and northern France laid waste by the fighting of 1914-18. These are still some of the most marginalised parts of France, laid to waste a second time in the late 20th century by the collapse of heavy industry and traditional farming patterns.
Macron is alternating, somewhat uneasily, visits to battlefields with visits to small factories in an attempt to show that that he is not the Metropolitan President that his critics describe.
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At each stop, Macron has attempted to entwine history, commemoration and contemporary politics. But this has not been without blunders. He has already withdrawn comments he made about honouring Marshal Pétain, the First World War soldier and Second World War collaborator beloved of certain nationalist parties.
Further mishaps notwithstanding, on Sunday, before an audience including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, he is expected to say:
“We face new populist threats to democracy, to pluralism, to the international rule of law. We face a resurgence of intolerant nationalism and heartless capitalism. None of this is new but it is new to the new generations. All the arguments and motives that we need for rescuing the democratic world order and the European Union from their enemies, old and new, can be found in World War One and its bungled aftermath.”
He will declare himself the standard-bearer for a “refoundation” of the European Union. He will, in effect, make himself leader of a crusade to defend western, liberal, democratic values against Trumpism, Putinism, Orbanism and Salvinism – but also the excesses of unregulated markets and giant financial interests.
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This is just the beginning. Next May he plans to take a leading role – unprecedented for a head of government, let alone a head of state – in the European elections. Macron will campaign in France, and possibly other member states, to promote the idea that shared ‘European sovereignty’ is often more useful than national sovereignty. He will say that only a strengthened EU can protect the economic and security interests of European nations from China, Russia and even the United States.
Wonderful, pro-Europeans will say. At least someone is prepared to make the case for Europe and face down the populists. Maybe. But Macron is taking big risks – even from a pro-European viewpoint; perhaps especially from a European viewpoint.
Apart from hijacking the First World War centenary to audition for the soon-to-be-vacant role of “leader” of the EU, he is basing his strategy on the European elections where low turn-out favours extreme parties of Left and Right. Worst of all, he is doing these things from a position of weakness not of strength.
Macron – the young man who seemed never to doubt himself – has fallen into a black, introspective mood. After an extraordinary rise to power, and an inordinate run of good luck, the reality of front-line politics has taken its toll.
Since the summer, he has suffered a series of setbacks – the first in his life since he failed as a young man to gain entrance to the super-elite French college, the Ecole Normale Supérieure – and his poll ratings have sunk to around 29%.
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There are reports from within the Elysée that Macron is “drifting” and unable to make decisions. It is said that he relies too much on a small internal coterie of young advisers, nick-named “the nursery”.
Last week, he took four days off to spend time with his wife, Brigitte, in Honfleur in Normandy. Elysée officials dismissed suggestions that the President was “burned out”. This was, they said, merely the kind of long weekend that millions of French people award themselves from time to time. He was recharging his batteries before his punishing Armistice tour.
There has also been talk of growing ill-feeling between Macron and his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe. Despite his boast that he would be a Jupiter-like president, Macron has been tempted, Sarkozy-like, to become his own prime minister. Like Sarkozy, he has been sinking in the opinion polls while his, PM, remains relatively popular.
To break out of this trap, and escape from his own self-doubt wanted a means to re-launch his presidency. As one Elysée official said: “He wants to be a hero again, as he was last year. First and foremost he wants to be a hero to himself.”
Hence Macron 2.0 – a crusade against populism and the revival of his proposals for a stronger, more flexible European Union. But Macron’s decision to make the First World War centenary overtly political has drawn criticism from the Right and the Far Right in France. They say he is downplaying the military achievements of France in 1914-18. This weekend should, they argue, be mostly the commemoration of a glorious victory.
Hardly. The slaughter and sacrifice of World War One are certainly worth remembering. Its “military achievements” less so. It is to Macron’s credit that his seven day tour includes long-forgotten sites of slaughter of French troops in 1914 and 1915, not just the standard salute to “heroic” Verdun.
Nonetheless, his speech on Sunday is an enormous gamble. While he may be ready to lead a pro-European fight-back. It is not clear who is ready to follow him.
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It is unlikely that Germany, as it seeks Angela Merkel’s successor, will move rapidly in Macron’s direction. Britain is leaving the EU. Italy is ruled by Eurosceptics. Spain is preoccupied with Catalonian succession. Much of eastern and central Europe is trying to evade or defy the EU’s commitment to openness and democracy. The Liberal Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, though Macronian in many respects, dislikes some of Macron’s Eurozone and protectionist ideas. Ireland fears Macron’s push for harmonised corporate taxes within the Eurozone.
The French President has made it clear that he plans to ignore these difficulties and plunge into a vigorous, personal campaign in the European elections next May. Here the risks are even starker.
On past experience, the European elections are the worst forum in which to try to whip up popular enthusiasm for the European Union. Turn-out in France, like most countries, tends to be poor – around 48% in 2014. Those who do vote tend towards the disgruntled and the extreme.
In the latest French polls, Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party and its allies are running neck and neck at around 20% with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. In one poll this week, the far-right party had taken a narrow lead. Last time Madame Le Pen “won” the French part of the European elections with 24 per cent. Such an outcome, or even a dead heat, would be a humiliation for Macron – and a repudiation for his European crusade
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Madame Le Pen has her own financial and political problems but French domestic politics will take a lurch next week into territory which favours her anti-elite, anti-metropolitan message. Motorists from rural and outer-suburban France are threatening to block roads en masse on 17 November in protest against a surge in pump prices of petrol and especially diesel. The price spike – over 30% this year – is partly caused by high oil prices but also by increased taxes intended to reduce France’s 60 per cent dependence on heavily-polluting diesel cars.
Residents of rural and outer suburban France already feel fenced out of the relatively booming economies of bigger towns and cities. They see the jump in petrol prices as a threat to their way of life imposed by wealthy urbanites who go to work by metro or bicycle.
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“You are crushing people,” one man told Macron on his visit to Verdun. In return, he got a lengthy presidential lecture on the need to reduce pollution and dependency on oil – not untrue but unlikely to calm tempers. The pump price revolt – apolitical so far and spread informally by social media – looks likely to turn into one of those French street rebellions which easily spins out of control.
Far from promoting his European vision with his youth and energy, Macron risks damaging it with his domestic unpopularity. As one pro-European French commentator, Marion Van Renterghem, said this week: “He is beeping his horn loudly while driving straight into a wall.”