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Daring Macron plans to lead European reform

In May last year, Emmanuel Macron became president of France, bursting on to the scene from relative obscurity, with a background as an investment banker and as economic minister for former President Francois Hollande. Not only did he put himself center stage, he also managed to form a party, La Republique En Marche!, from scratch and win a majority in parliament.
Much of Europe breathed a sigh of relief when he was elected, as he stemmed the tide of populism sweeping across the continent by winning against the right-wing Marine Le Pen.
Macron is determined, daring and unconventional. He understands that France needs to undergo serious labor reforms and he has started the process, while he also announced that he felt the EU system of agricultural subsidies needed to be overhauled, and he was upfront about these issues during his election campaign. He is correct to embark on this economic course, because liberalizing France’s stringent labor market regulations is the only way to attract foreign direct investment and to create the jobs needed to combat widespread unemployment. These initiatives are crucial to putting France’s economy on the global map. Initially, Macron’s popularity slipped, but it has recovered since — surpassing 50 percent in December.
The president’s international outlook is daring and exciting at once. In September, he outlined his vision on Europe, advocating for more integration in certain areas while demanding stringent reforms. The cornerstones of his speech were sovereignty and democracy. He was defending project euro and demanding a common budget; he foresaw closer co-operation on issues like taxing carbon and financial transactions; and he also wanted to streamline the EU Commission from 28 members to 15. And, in the light of the United States’ waning interest in NATO and the rising threat of terrorism, he emphasized closer European co-operation in the areas of defense and security, advocating for a European Security Agency.
Like his predecessors Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand, he sees Europe as the vehicle to ensure France’s position in the world while its economic and political clout is waning. Macron understands that he cannot achieve his European vision by himself and, again like his predecessors, he has asked Germany to jointly lead the efforts. Angela Merkel — embattled as she is — wants to co-operate, while Macron is running through open doors with the leader of the Social Democrats, Martin Schulz, who used to head the European Parliament. Others in Germany, like the Liberal Democrats, are more skeptical.

French president, who has enjoyed a rapid rise to power, seems eager to assume Merkel’s mantle of leadership on the European as well as on the global stage — but it won’t all be plain sailing.

Cornelia Meyer

Macron has also positioned himself as a strong European leader on the global stage. He received Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, each time advocating that Europe, and with it France, needed to engage with all of the world’s leaders. Each time he articulated criticisms of their modus operandi, but tried to find constructive solutions. This was probably most pronounced last week, when he declared it was inconceivable that Turkey would be able join the European Union for the time being. He stressed, however, that the country on the Bosporus remained an important partner for Europe and that they needed to find mechanisms of co-operation. That message was echoed by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel when he met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on the same day. 
On Dec. 12, Macron commemorated the Paris Agreement on the environment by convening world leaders in the French capital for the “One Planet Summit.” The great and the good arrived in their droves and Macron stepped into the vacuum left by the waning environmental interest of the US under President Trump. Indeed, Macron’s mantra had been to “make the planet great again” from the start of his presidency.
Over the last eight months, the French president has visited 19 countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, promoting his brand of foreign policy coupled with French business interests. 
Macron is an ambitious man of vision and he is in a hurry. He is daring and does not shy away from tackling controversial issues. He has had his successes, like winning the European Banking Authority from London as one of the spoils of Brexit. He is helped by the various vacuums created by the Trump administration’s policies, Brexit and Germany’s political limbo after the September elections. Merkel is weakened and Macron seems eager to assume her mantle of leadership on the European as well as on the global stage. 
All of this may be exciting, but it is not going to be plain sailing on all fronts. Many Europeans look skeptically at closer European integration. Populism is alive and kicking across the continent, with the far-right Freedom Party sitting in a coalition government in Austria. Meanwhile, Viktor Orban promotes his brand of populism in Hungary, and the Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in Holland and Le Pen’s Front National in France, to mention just a few, are thriving. Macron’s plans may be audacious and exciting, but the more success he has, the more we are bound to hear from his detractors in France, Europe and beyond.
• Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources