Emmanuel Macron, with eagle eyes, is staring at Europe like stout Cortez. Elected president of France almost five years ago aged just 39, he dreams beyond the renewal of his lease on the Élysée Palace in the April election. Now Angela Merkel has left the world stage, Macron’s ambition is to replace her as Europe’s de facto leader and to father a European federation, a United States of Europe, with France and himself at its centre.
On New Year’s Day, France assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the European Council, the supreme institution of the European Union, an organisation some might think besieged by unresolved crises and policy conflicts and perhaps best advised to be modest. Unabashed, Macron served up an amuse-bouche of what his vision might mean for France, for Europe, for Britain and for the world.
He lit up the Eiffel Tower in the EU colours (also the French embassy in London), ordered a gigantic EU flag to be flown at the Arc de Triomphe and went on television to devote a large part of his New Year’s Eve discourse to his fellow citizens to declare 2022 ‘a turning point’ for a Europe ‘more sovereign and more powerful’. The Élysée simultaneously published a grandiose 76-page plan for the French presidency, promising European solutions to the Covid crisis, action on climate change, a common defence policy, reform of the Schengen Agreement and more, including firm dealing with the UK on the Northern Ireland Protocol and fish.
Macron also wants an EU minimum wage, carbon taxes on products imported into Europe and more regulation and taxation of American tech giants like Amazon and Google. (It’s an ongoing embarrassment that the sclerotic EU has yet to produce a tech giant of its own to regulate or tax.)
The notion that any of these can be delivered before 30 June, when France will be succeeded in the presidency by the Czech Republic, is ludicrous, but that’s not the point. The document is, rather, Macron’s manifesto for the ‘European Renaissance’ with which he is obsessed, and more immediately for his own re-election.
Macron’s New Year television address was nothing less than a campaign speech, although the President is still not yet a declared candidate. It seems likely that he will not formally announce his candidacy until the last possible moment, reducing his campaign to a short blitzkrieg so as to maintain the advantages of incumbency, which he can endlessly exploit, flying around the country promising billions.
In La France profonde, the EU is not loved. Neither is Macron. Currently only 25 per cent intend to vote for him in the first round. He apparently believes that doesn’t matter, that he’ll cruise to victory with the support of the media against a divided opposition, and might even be lucky enough in the second round to face Marine Le Pen, who refuses to retire despite her inevitable defeat. Her father failed five times to win the presidency. She’s failed twice already.
Bookies, polls and even Michel Houellebecq, miserabilist of French letters, in his not-cheerful new novel Anéantir (Annihilate), which was being circulated in digital samizdat in advance of its publication this week, are among many predicting Macron will win in April but that France will remain as much in decline at the end of his next five-year term as it is today.
That’s a depressing thought but perhaps not unreasonable. Let’s go with the hypothesis that Macron wins in April, but that he does so with a substantially smaller victory margin than last time. It’s also improbable that he will gain a convincing presidential majority in the National Assembly elections to follow the presidentials. The political movement he invented five years ago, La République en Marche!, is evaporating. So what does he do in his second term?
To govern France, he will be forced into a cohabitation, probably with Républicains, maybe with spots for the likes of Valérie Pécresse, who is the Républicain candidate for the presidency — although there’s not much difference between her and Macron other than that Pécresse speaks Japanese and Russian, which Macron does not. Macron’s former prime minister Édouard Philippe might be lured out of retirement, although he could be biding his time for a presidential run in five years. Macron may even have to team up with a socialist or two, if that’s what it takes to keep the show on the road. (Éric Zemmour, who is running as a rightist independent under the label Reconquête, will not go quietly into the night should he lose. He’ll resume his media career and will still be a thorn in the side of les bien-pensants. But Le Pen will have to go and maybe her niece Marion Maréchal will move to a central stage.)
The French are often ungrateful, disputatious and miserable. They gobble antidepressants and loathe politicians. General de Gaulle considered them ungovernable. So if Macron wins re-election, he will not much miss having to pretend to be nice to them. He will appoint a government and let them get on with it, maybe sacking a prime minister from time to time pour encourager les autres, and spend as much time as possible strutting the stages of Europe. He will be constitutionally unable to run again, but nobody thinks he’s going to fade into obscurity. Macron will certainly be looking for a new job in 2027, aged just 50.
Macron may believe it’s his and France’s destiny to lead a revitalised Europe, but the truth is that the EU is more pitiful and divided than powerful and sovereign. Even if Covid fades away, it has not been paid for. Inflation is accelerating. The Poles and the Greeks worry more about migrants pouring into their countries than the prospect of enhanced EU sovereignty.
And then there is Germany, France’s strategic partner, bedrock of the Union, in its own slough of despond. Macron is now the senior partner in an unsettled relationship. The new German coalition government of neo-liberals, leftists and greens is divided and its policies are illogical. The Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has closed three nuclear power stations and Germany has become dependent on Russian gas to keep the lights on.
Bonaparte, the last Frenchman with such continental ambitions, wanted lucky generals above good ones, but ultimately was brought down by his own hubris. Macron has been lucky so far, but his ambition to reestablish Napoleon’s First Empire, with himself at its head, might be pushing it.