Macron’s new leadership role in Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) attend a media conference after the summit with African leaders from the underfunded G5 Sahel anti-terror coalition in La Celle Saint Cloud, near Paris, France, 13 December 2017. [EPA-EFE/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON]

Seven months after his election, Emmanuel Macron has established himself as a force on the world stage. While some see in him the new “leader of Europe”, the Franco-German tandem remains crucial for implementing his ideas. EURACTIV Germany’s media partner “Der Tagesspiegel” reports.

When Emmanuel Macron speaks, one has often the impression that he is not standing behind a lectern but rather on a theatre stage. He lets his words resonate; his gestures are sometimes dramatic, but always forceful. In the upcoming week, Macron will turn 40 – he is the youngest president in French history. Some think of him as the new leader figure for Europe.

In any case, his role as French president is barely questioned in France. Last weekend, when the country was paying tribute to the rock legend Johnny Hallyday, Macron took the floor to speak in front of the Parisian Eglise de la Madeleine. The head of state encouraged the attendees to applause for the deceased singer, “so that the spirit of Rock’n’ Roll and Blues stays alive.”

Macron directed his live televised appeal to all the French, “no matter who you are.” While saying that, he clapped hands and heard the thousand-fold applause.

One can assume that many of Macron’s countrymen perceived this appearance rather than his political programme which the president absolved in the past few weeks. Hallyday was a down-to-earth singer who had fans everywhere: in Paris, but especially in the province, sometimes very omitted by the political elite.

The rock icon seemed to act as a link between the successful urbanites and the less privileged. And in a certain way, this is also Macron’s mission: To make France come to terms with itself – rather than leave it to the extreme right-wing Front National. For many, the singer was like “a friend, a brother”, Macron said in his eulogy. His fans supported him with an amount of energy “that shapes a nation.”

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So much pathos in a eulogy – in France it is very common when a president passionately lobbies for his ideas. A high French government official describes it as follows: “In France, we expect our president to mention a few catch phrases: initiative, movement, momentum. In Germany, one expects different terms from political leaders: stability, reflection, a step-by-step approach.”

Paris wonders as the stable Berlin conditions begin to totter

Of course, the comment is aimed at Angela Merkel, who in her 13th-year of chancellorship currently struggles to form a government. With astonishment, Paris notes that the usually stable conditions to be found in Germany have been shaken by the outcome of the elections.

It is Macron’s wish that the government formation in Berlin develops in accordance with his preference. During the summer, only a few months into his term, he argued for a multi-billion budget for the eurozone. When the FDP threatened to block his ambitious project during the Jamaica negotiations, Macron sent his Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire to Berlin. Le Maire then asked insistently not to bury the endeavour of a eurozone budget from the start.

Macron places his bet on a Grand coalition

As the negotiation in Berlin ultimately collapsed, it was Merkel who called Macron. After his talk with the Chancellor, the incumbent of the Elysée Palace picked up the telephone in order to speak with SDP leader Martin Schulz. Macron hopes that after the collapse of Jamaica there will be a grand coalition. In a new edition of the grand coalition, Schulz then has to keep alive his dream of a budget for the eurozone, a visible sign of solidarity among the member states.

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French expectations for Eurozone budged dimmed down

France, in light of the resistance, has dimmed down its expectations that the controversial project can be realised in short term. But Macron first needs to wait and see if things in the neighbouring country will develop in his favour at all.

The political impasse in Berlin reveals how the roles between Germany and France have changed in an extraordinary way. For years, Merkel has set the tone in Europe. France’s presidents, no matter if they were called Nicolas Sarkozy or François Hollande, were perceived as minions of the Chancellor when it came to European politics. This is currently changing.

Merkel wants to see “results”

Seven months have passed since Macron strode the inner courtyard of the Louvre to the sounds of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Immediately after his inauguration, he paid Merkel a visit.

After their meeting, Merkel mentioned that there is “something magical” about every new beginning but immediately added that this magic will only prevail “if there are results.” Merkel’s message: France first has to accomplish domestic reforms before Paris can bring up demands concerning European policy.

In France, one knows the European reservations in all details. “For many years, we disappointed the Germans,” it can be heard in Parisian government circles. In fact, Macron’s predecessors Hollande and Sarkozy repeatedly made big reform announcements but in the end, nothing changed. Displeasure in Berlin was caused especially by the fact that France year after year contravened the deficit regulations of the European Stability Pact.

Macron has delivered

Seven months into his term, Macron may be proud of not failing the Chancellor’s expectations. He set a reform pace that brought the government machinery to the edge. Employees complained about long working days. An adviser from the financial department, which has taken up the task of scrupulously meeting the debt ceiling restrictions, left the ministry with a burnout three weeks after taking office.

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Despite the difficulties, Macron was able to pursue his domestic reform agenda. In late November the French National Assembly adopted his controversial renewed employment law that is said to contribute to lower unemployment. Protests by unions against the reforms were rather limited.

Moreover, Macron profits from the fact that his party “La République en Marche” does not have to fear serious competition: The previous ruling parties, the Socialists and the conservative Les Républicains, are still coping with their devastating election loss.

Spirit of optimism in France

It is too early to take stock of Macron’s reforms but it became clear that the young president not only bolstered the spirit of renewal in his own country but in the EU as a whole. Macron’s gamble, to campaign with a commitment towards the EU, also came in handy in other ways: When his electoral victory sees its one-year anniversary, he is going to be honoured with the Charlemagne Prize.

While the political system in France saw an unprecedented change in the past few months, Germany experienced an election campaign gridlock. After the outcome of the election became clear, conservative newspaper “Le Figaro“ spoke of a “bitter victory” for Angela Merkel.

Since then, critical comments towards Berlin have the upper hand. After the solo run by CSU agriculture minister Christian Schmidt with the approval of Glyphosate, the morning program moderator of the radio station “France Inter” asked with regard to the Chancellor: “Is there a pilot on the plane?” That the 63-year-old Merkel has already passed her zenith is clearly registered in Paris.

Macron fills the vacuum

Macrons tries to fill the space, Merkel leaves a blank on the international arena in these weeks. This weekend, he received Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and urged him to stop the settlement in the Palestinian territories.

On Tuesday, he presented himself as the host of the Paris climate summit with 50 heads of state and government and over 4,000 other participants. This Wednesday, he invited the five Sahel countries – Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad – to coordinate the fight against Islamic terror in the region.

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Time” Magazine: Europe’s new leader

The US “Time” Magazine posted the French president on its front page, making him the “next leader of Europe.” But things are not that easy. Macron is well aware that he cannot implement his European political ideas without the German Chancellor.

This should also become clear at the two-day EU summit, which starts on Thursday. Because he relies on Merkel in European politics, Macron was also quite modest in the interview with the magazine.

When journalists asked him if he wanted to take the lead in Europe, he replied: “The classic French answer would be to say ‘Yes’. But I think that would be a mistake.” He would rather be “one of the leaders”, he said and explained that he sees himself as part of a “new generation of leaders”, “fully convinced that our future lies in Europe”.

Planning ahead for 2022

Macron wants to be re-elected as president in 2022. The European elections in 2019 have to serve as a steppingstone. If some of his ambitious ideas for strengthening the eurozone are implemented by then, with Merkel’s help, voters will also credit his “La République en Marche” party. As things stand, there is a good chance his plan could work.