Macron’s ambitions face test in high-stakes EU polls

President Emmanuel Macron will find it tricky to challenge the dominance of the conservative European People’s Party and the Socialists and Democrats in the 751-seat parliament. (AFP)
Updated 24 May 2019

Macron’s ambitions face test in high-stakes EU polls

  • The EU election represents a critical juncture for Emmanuel Macron
  • Sources close to Macron say a bad loss could prompt a major cabinet reshuffle

PARIS: President Emmanuel Macron this weekend faces a critical test of his ambitions to reform France and champion a liberal Europe in European Parliament elections where his own party risks losing to the far-right.
The latest opinion surveys show the far-right National Rally (RN) outpolling Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM) by between 0.5-2 percentage points, after months where the two were neck-and-neck.
Analysts say that two years into his five-year term, the EU election represents a critical juncture for Macron and will influence whether the 41-year-old president can continue reforming in what he calls the “second act” of his time in office.
Macron has made no secret of the importance of the polls in France Sunday, telling regional newspapers this week the elections were the most important for four decades as the union faced an “existential threat.”
At stake is the youthful president’s vision of implementing further pro-business reforms in France, while emerging as a champion of more integration among EU member states.
Losing to Marine Le Pen’s RN — formerly known as the National Front — could be a glaring blow to those ambitions.
Sources close to Macron say a bad loss could prompt a major cabinet reshuffle, with the job of Prime Minister Edouard Philippe seen as being on the line.
“Symbolically, losing European elections in his own country would be seen as a repudiation of someone so pro-European,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think-tank.
“What is at stake for Emmanuel Macron is to have an influence in the future European parliament. This is not a given.”
Macron will find it tricky to challenge the dominance of the conservative European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) in the 751-seat parliament.
His European allies, grouped together in the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), may only end up with some 100 seats.
“If you don’t have a position in the European parliament then your European influence is limited,” said a French presidential official.
“This is what is at stake in the elections in the face of the nationalist risk.”
The elections also come at a prickly time in Macron’s relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is due to leave office in 2021 but who the French president wanted to cultivate as an ally in reforming Europe.
Merkel is unhappy with Macron challenging the EPP which she backs, while tensions have flared over Brexit, the choice of the next EU commission chief and France’s decision to increase its budget deficit.
“The European political landscape is very fractured, there is no leadership and Macron has not succeeded in imposing his,” said Jean-Thomas Lesueur, political scientist at the Franco-Belgian Thomas More Institute.
After an initial burst of optimism, the “Germans became disenchanted quite quickly,” he said.
The elections come with Macron still shaken after six months of sometimes violent anti-government protests by the “yellow vest” movement which prompted him to announce tax cuts for the working classes and a rise in the minimum wage.
The protests have shrunk in size, but Macron’s popularity ratings remain leaden with the president painfully aware his two predecessors both lasted only one term without leaving any major mark.
Sources said if the LREM falls behind the RN all eyes will be on the margin to determine the magnitude of the reaction.
“If there is nothing in it, behind or in front, I don’t see a reshuffle. But if we are three to four points behind the RN, or below 20 percent, people within the ruling party will start to ask questions,” said a person close to Macron, who asked not to be named.
“And this will require a change in personnel,” the source said.
A minister, also speaking on condition of anonymity, added: “If we are far behind the RN then things are going to shake. There will be a big reshuffle. I don’t see how we can lose the elections” and not change the prime minister.
For Brice Teinturier from the polling institute Ipsos in France, a victory for Macron’s party would give the government some “political oxygen” and capacity to allow reforms to continue.
“But if they are overtaken by the RN — and not just by 0.5 but two percentage points — this will be a failure and the capacity of the government to reform will be something that is merely hypothetical,” he said.


Tiananmen anniversary marked by crackdown, Hong Kong vigil ban

Updated 26 min 54 sec ago

Tiananmen anniversary marked by crackdown, Hong Kong vigil ban

  • Hong Kong cancels annual candlelight vigil for the first time in 30 years
  • Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students had gathered in 1989, was quiet and largely empty on Thursday

BEIJING: China tightened controls over dissidents while pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and elsewhere sought ways to mark the 31st anniversary Thursday of the crushing of the pro-democracy movement centered on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
That came after authorities in Hong Kong took the extraordinary move of canceling an annual candlelight vigil in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory’s Victoria Park for the first time in 30 years.
Authorities cited the need for social distancing amid the coronavirus outbreak, despite the recent reopening of schools, beaches, bars and beauty parlors. Hong Kong has had relatively few cases of the virus and life has largely returned to normal in the city of 7.4 million.
However, China has long detested the vigil, the only such activity allowed on Chinese territory to commemorate victims of the crackdown, which remains a taboo subject on the mainland. Hundreds, possibly thousands of people were killed when tanks and troops assaulted the center of Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989 to break up weeks of student-led protests seen as posing a threat to authoritarian Communist Party rule.
Tiananmen Square, where thousands of students had gathered in 1989, was quiet and largely empty on Thursday. Police and armored vehicles stood sentry on the vast surface the square. Few pedestrians lined up at security checkpoints where they must show ID to be allowed through as part of mass nationwide surveillance measures aimed at squelching any dissent.
The cancelation of the vigil also comes amid a tightening of Beijing’s grip over Hong Kong, with the National People’s Congress, China’s ceremonial parliament, moving to pass national security legislation that circumvents Hong Kong’s local legislature and could severely limit free speech and opposition political activity.
In Hong Kong, a law is being passed to make it a crime to disrespect China’s national anthem and 15 well-known veteran activists were arrested and charged with organizing and taking part in illegal demonstrations. Those actions are seen as part of a steady erosion of civil rights Hong Kong was guaranteed when it was handed over from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Despite the ban on the vigil, the Asian financial hub was bracing for “pop-up” protests of the type that raged around the city during months of anti-government protests last year that often led to violent confrontations between police and demonstrators.
Thousands have been arrested over the demonstrations, which were sparked by proposed legislation that could have seen suspects extradited to mainland China where they could face torture and unfair, politically biased trials.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic and Democratic Movements of China that organizes the annual vigil has called on people around the city to light candles at 8 p.m. and plans to livestream the commemorations on its website www.64live.org.
Alliance Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan said protesters still planned to gather at the park to mourn victims of the massacre and show their support for the democratic cause in China. It wasn’t clear what form the activity would take or how many would attend. The entrance to the park was blocked by police barriers on Thursday.
“Hong Kong government tried to please or show loyalty to Beijing and ban our gathering before even the national security comes in. But we are determined,” Lee said at a kiosk set up by the group to distribute flyers in the busy Causeway Bay shopping district near the park.
Other vigils, virtual and otherwise, are planned elsewhere, including in Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy whose government called again this year for Beijing to own up to the facts of the crackdown.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo marked the crackdown anniversary on Tuesday, a day after federal forces used tear gas to clear peaceful protesters from a park in front of the White House.
Pompeo tweeted criticism of China and Hong Kong for banning the vigil before meeting privately with a group of Tiananmen Square survivors at the State Department. That too drew criticism from China.
Alongside the exchanges of rhetoric, China’s small, beleaguered dissident community has again come under greater scrutiny from the authorities. Many have been placed under house arrest and their communications with the outside world cut off, according to rights groups.
China has released the last of those arrested for directly taking part in the Tiananmen demonstrations, but others who seek to commemorate them have been rearrested for continuing their activism.
They include Huang Qi, founder of website 64 Tianwang that sought to expose official wrongdoing. Reportedly in failing health, he is serving a 12-year-sentence after being convicted of leaking state secrets abroad.