OPINION - Macron may be struggling at home, but he is still Europe’s biggest dog

Ben Judah (Handout)
Ben Judah (Handout)

Emmanuel Macron, if he had been born in another time, would have conquered half of Europe by now. He might even have installed a puppet Prince Harry as his vassal in London, having first raised an army for him in Normandy then dispatched his ageing father with the help of our scheming and embittered grand barons. This is not what history has handed him. Only 39 when he became President, his energy and ambition have come up against the very real constraints of European politics — both the French public and those pesky partners’ vetoes.

It’s tempting, with the rubbish piling up in Paris and protests against his pension reforms spoiling his international image, to dismiss Macron. To write him off as another politician endorsed by The Economist that didn’t quite work. That would be a mistake — the Centrists were right — because Macron has nevertheless made himself a historical figure. One that has made the EU much more robust than it would have been otherwise.

It’s not British scepticism to point out that the EU was in a bad shape 10 to 15 years ago. The Franco-German austerity politics of both Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Trichet, the second head of the European Central Bank, had weakened it.

While it was a surprise to Brussels that Britain left the EU, it was not a surprise that a major crisis had come. Polling showed the majority of Italians favoured leaving the euro and the rolling eurozone debt crises meant the possibility of the currency breaking up was discussed in all national capitals.

Macron’s election as the most pro-EU President in French history was a decisive turning point. He may, thanks to the German Nein, have fallen far short of his ambitions for the bloc but his energy has been crucial in a number of decisive breakthroughs. In 2020, the EU, facing Covid, began borrowing collectively at scale for the first time. In 2021, with vaccines, it took the lead when it comes to health for the first time. And in 2022, with war, the EU decoupled itself from Russian energy, with none of the blackouts or mass unrest Vladimir Putin wanted. Now in 2023, with all its challenges, the EU is not only about to start collective arms purchasing for the first time but launched its first truly serious industrial policy to keep up with Joe Biden and Xi Jinping’s huge interventions.

This tougher, more statist positioning in Europe is not only more durable, it is also in its policy spirit much more French. Talking to senior French officials in Paris last week, there was noted satisfaction that Europe was turning their way. One by one the Germans have dropped the taboos, from arming Ukraine to abandoning Russian gas to issuing collective European debt. Meanwhile, across Europe, it is clear that two policies Macron championed, EU financial support for countries during Covid and the tough line on Brexit, have turned the tide on others’ wishes to leave the bloc. Grexit or Italexit are now half-remembered acronyms.

The trouble for Macron, though, is France itself. While across the board he has left the country in a moderately better policy position than where he found it, he has not stopped the drift towards the far Right. Millions voted for Macron as a shock third party candidate in the hope of achieving a decisive pushback against Marine Le Pen. Instead she’s only climbed higher: her 33.9 per cent of the vote in the 2016 run-off jumped to 41.5 per cent last year.

Meanwhile, her party is predicted to make gains in Parliament. The latest poll would have her win 26 per cent of the vote for l’Assemblée Nationale, which would become the largest party. A real jump from where she is now, on 19 per cent. “When I’m President,” as she keeps repeating, is no longer a claim that seems extremely far-fetched.

Would an Obama to Trump-style victory in 2027 turn into the ultimate historical defeat for Macron? I’m not so sure. Le Pen has been forced to scrap key policies to get closer to the Presidency, dropping plans for a Frexit or leaving the single currency.

Le Pen in the Elysée would be a dark day for the European Union but most senior French, German and Commission officials I know think she would actually be more like the far Right Prime Minister in Italy, Georgia Meloni, who hasn’t rocked the boat or even tried to clash with Brussels.

Is this the future of France? Let’s hope not. Even if the EU survives something very, very dangerous for Europe will be beginning.