This is the year when many expect Emmanuel Macron to move up from boy wonder to undisputed leader of Europe. The French president turned 40 in December and, during his state visit to China, observers certainly thought he looked ready for the challenge.Speaking in Beijing last week, Macron told Chinese business executives in English: “I want you to just get this message — France is back, but with France, Europe is back.”
There was little ambiguity in what Macron meant. Using the language of global trade, rather than his mother tongue, he showed he was just as keen to open up the economy of the European Union as he was France’s. From the moment of his astonishing election win last May, which Macron chose to celebrate with a rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the EU anthem, the future success of the union of 28 states has been as important as domestic ambitions.
It comes as German Chancellor Angela Merkel — in recent years the personification of calm and stable leadership — faces serious problems at home. The head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is currently involved in apparently never-ending talks with her rival party, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), as she tries to form a coalition government. A preliminary deal was struck after a 24-hour verbal marathon that finished last Friday, but there is still much politicking to be done.
France and Germany are the traditional powerhouses of the EU project, with the latter dominating historically. However, the political stalemate in Germany has caused an increase in votes for smaller parties at the expense of both the CDU and SPD, and a rise in extremism.
In such circumstances, Merkel is hamstrung as she attempts to tackle issues such as Europe’s burgeoning refugee crisis, and — crucially — power struggles within the EU. An inconclusive federal election in September means the Chancellor desperately needs the SPD. It is telling that, following the negotiating session at the end of last week, Merkel said: “The world is not waiting for us — we need a fresh start in Europe.” She added: “A fresh start for Europe is also a fresh start for Germany.”
What we should not do, however, is mistake Merkel’s woes, and Macron’s fierce loyalty to the EU, for a desire for France to rule over the European entity. On the contrary, Macron is a pragmatic team player who has a very clear idea of what the European project was set up to achieve, and this can be summed up in one word — peace.
After 1945, integration and cooperation were seen as essential in combating pugnacious nationalistic interests, and especially the Franco-German rivalry, which had led to two cataclysmic world wars. Just as importantly, centralizing power in a single mighty figure was associated with the kind of fascist dictators who turned Europe into a series of battlefields.
Macron was born and grew up in Amiens, the provincial northern town that had to be rebuilt after both conflicts, as vast areas of the surrounding Somme countryside were also decimated. During his election campaign, he told me how he saw Europeans joining forces as being the key to avoiding such horrors being repeated.
Macron was far more interested in reforming the EU than becoming its figurehead. Yes, France and Germany’s roles as founders of the bloc would be hugely important in its future development, but this does not translate into them controlling everybody else. Working closely with Merkel will be as important to him as dealing with the other EU nations.
What is happening at the moment is that Macron’s voice appears particularly resonant because of the increasing feebleness of his counterparts in other EU states. Merkel’s energy-sapping inter-party bargaining makes her far less reliable as a buttress to less secure world leaders, and especially American president Donald Trump.
French president’s voice appears particularly resonant because of the increasing feebleness of his counterparts in other European states — but that does not mean he wants to rule over the bloc.
Macron established himself as an immensely confident and realistic statesman within weeks of taking office by inviting Trump to Paris. He did not fawn over the populist head of state, but simply expressed his willingness to engage with the most powerful nation on earth, whoever was in charge.
It was the same when Macron received Russian leader Vladimir Putin at the Palace of Versailles; the French president was as critical of Russian policy in Ukraine as he was of manipulative bots and fake news emanating from Moscow. Similarly, Macron called the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “essential partner,” despite serious concerns about his country’s human rights record — notably from Merkel.
Look, too, at how non-confrontational Macron has been over Britain’s slow, muddled exit process from the EU. Rather than using Prime Minister Theresa May’s tribulations to bolster his own position, he has mainly kept a dignified silence about them. This, after describing Brexit as “a crime” before he came to office.
Macron’s resounding victory over far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in the second and final round of the presidential election is another reason for his European-wide, and indeed worldwide, popularity. Le Pen’s Front National (FN) still represents division and hatred of foreigners, as well as a protectionism that is frequently medieval in substance.
Macron embodies a younger generation that is repulsed by FN and Trump-style cant. He comes across as a dynamic politician who is already reviving a notoriously sluggish domestic economy, while promoting France’s global engine room — its multinationals.
This all adds up to a thoroughly up-to-date operator who will not just continue to work with traditional EU allies such as Germany, but also perceived enemies, no matter what difficulties they find themselves in. Many will criticize him for acting like the Sun King (French presidents are constantly compared to King Louis XIV, and their first ladies to Marie Antoinette) but such cliches are wide of the mark.
Macron is a consensus politician who is currently offering a sensible, but by no means remarkable, alternative to failing contemporaries. He will invariably impress, but calling him the leader of Europe, let alone the free world, would display an abject misunderstanding of who Macron is and what he stands for.
• Nabila Ramdani is an award-winning French-Algerian journalist, columnist, and broadcaster who specializes in French politics, Islamic affairs and the Arab World.