January 19, 2022 - 3:30pm

On the 1 January France took over the rotating presidency of the European Union. It is a moment Emmanuel Macron has been waiting for. A self-declared Europhile — he gave his victory speech in 2017 at the Louvre to the sounds of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony the ‘Ode to Joy’, the European Anthem, and not the traditional Marseillaise — he will use the opportunity to pursue his European agenda, having already chalked up the notable success of the €750 billion post-pandemic recovery fund, which he will try to pilot.

‘Relaunch, power and belonging’ (relance, puissance et appartenance) is the slogan Macron has adopted for the presidency, which only comes around every 13 years (Nicholas Sarkozy was the last French president to hold it).

At his speech at the European parliament this morning he urged Europe to invest in its collective security. In the next six months his objectives include reforming the Schengen travel area, deepening ‘European strategic sovereignty’, organising an EU-African Union summit, revising the Maastricht treaty, combating historical ‘revisionism’ to develop instead a European narrative, and launching a European civic service.

Can Macron successfully pursue his European agenda? Is he a type of Nietzschean superman, as has been noted in these pages, who can overcome the politics of his age?

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, Nietzsche rejected Bismarck’s ‘power politics’ of German unification through ‘blood and iron’ and the European ‘balance of power’ as a form of ‘petty politics’ dominated by nationalism, mediocrity and philistinism. Instead, he advocated a truly masterly ‘great politics’ of European unification led by a cultural pan-European elite he called the ‘good Europeans’. Like Stendhal, Goethe and Hegel before him, Nietzsche admired the figure of Napoleon — one Macron has often been compared to — and his desire to unify Europe. Yet he wasn’t entirely uncritical of Napoleon either, describing him as a synthesis of ‘superhuman’ (übermensch) and ‘inhuman’ (unmensch), criticising him for his corruption and hereditary politics.

How does Macron compare to Nietzsche’s ‘good European’? Certainly any moves to centralise European power would be welcome, and although Nietzsche was no economist, the post-pandemic recovery package, by tying in national governments, would be something he would favourably look upon. The same might be said of revising the Maastricht Treaty to move away from the budgetary straitjacket it imposed: Nietzsche was in favour of what made Europe stronger as a whole, not one member-state over another – in this instance the dominance of Germany over southern Europe, especially Greece. Indeed, it is the trading of power between the different member states under the aegis of the EU that Nietzsche would criticise as the continuation of the European power politics of old, and needing to be overcome.

As someone who, after moving to Basel for his first academic job, renounced his Prussian citizenship and spent the rest of his life officially stateless, roaming between France, Italy and Switzerland, Nietzsche would have endorsed the free travel area of Schengen. Today’s ‘migrant’ crisis is not something he would have known, but any attempts to make the system more fluid, fair and equitable between the members states — again a common policy — can only be welcome. For Macron, overcoming the opposition from someone like Orbán will be key to getting the reforms past, and he paid a formal visit to Hungary mid-December to find common ground on the question of European ‘sovereignty’.

Speaking of sovereignty: Macron’s vision of the ‘strategic sovereignty’ of Europe is definitely something Nietzsche would have been in favour of. Nietzsche had written in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil that he wished to see the threat of Russia increase so that Europe would be forced to develop its own united will in return. With a harder line on Russia emanating from the new German government, especially over the controversial gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, Macron has the chance to push Europe into a stronger position, and develop the autonomous ‘operational capacities’ he desires to be able to intervene in places like Ukraine in collaboration with NATO — which Macron famously described as ‘brain dead’ in 2019 — thereby fulfilling Nietzsche’s wish.

On the question of Brexit Nietzsche did not see the UK, perhaps still smarting from Napoleon’s defeat, as part of the European unification he called upon. Instead he thought Europe should ‘come to an understanding’ with her. At the time this was because he was concerned about getting access to the vast resources of the empire, and Macron has called for a new EU-African Union summit. Although the empire is now gone, Britain still offers certain economic strengths – the financial services of London are often mentioned — that the EU could make use of. Moreover the military alliance, especially between France and the UK, remains key. Right now, however, between the Northern Ireland Protocol, Channel crossings and fishing rights, the Entente cordiale is at a low ebb. After some heated exchanges on both sides, tensions have eased, although it is hard to see a productive relationship developing until a non-Brexit focused government comes to power in Britain.

For Nietzsche this European unification was not an end in itself, but rather served a higher goal: the creation of a pan-European culture. Here Macron has made two interesting suggestions. The first is the ‘European civic service’, an extension and doubling of the highly successful Erasmus programme that allows students to spend a year studying in another member state to other spheres such as apprenticeship or associative actions. Getting young Europeans to intermix — and intermarry — is exactly what Nietzsche had in mind when he was thinking of his ‘good Europeans’. Second, pursuing the work he has undertaken concerning the memory of the Algerian War of Independence in France, Macron is proposing a similar exercise for Europe. In France that memory project was led by the highly respected historian Benjamin Stora, and the project of thinking about the history of Europe can serve as the first step towards thinking about a European culture more broadly.

Nietzsche participated as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, which saw Bismarck defeat Napoleon III, whom Nietzsche chastised for having sullied his uncle’s legacy. He quickly concluded, however, that although Germany had become the dominant economic and military power of the time, France remained Europe’s ‘cultural power’. Today Germany is undoubtedly Europe’s economic, if not military, power, but what happens in France in 2022 still has an important bearing on the future of the EU.

Hugo Drochon is a historian, and the author of Nietzsche’s Great Politics.