Macron’s grand ambitions at stake in European elections

Adam Nossiter, The New York Times

Posted at May 21 2019 03:06 PM

French President Emmanuel Macron blinks as he walks back to his office after a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France May 20, 2019. Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

ABBEVILLE, France — For President Emmanuel Macron of France, it has been Europe or bust from the beginning.

Since his election two years ago, he has fashioned himself as the leader of Europe, laying out a grand vision of deeper integration. He has tried to stoke passion in a skeptical populace with an open letter in newspapers to “the citizens of Europe.” He has warned urgently of a “European civil war” that threatens the Continent’s values.

In the process, Macron has become the far right’s favorite whipping boy, the trim-suited stand-in for the so-called faceless bureaucrats in Brussels, his name spat with contempt by populists from Hungary to Italy and even in France.

Macron’s vision now faces its most critical test in elections for the European Parliament over three days, starting on Thursday. Polls in France show his party trailing Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National, or National Rally, the party that used to be called the National Front.

Defeat for Macron would be a stinging humiliation for a president who has barely managed to turn the tide of a popular revolt against his pro-business policies after months of often-violent Yellow Vest protests.

But it could also be the final nail in the coffin of the expansive vision of more Europe, more of the time, that has remained beyond Macron’s reach.

A breakthrough for far-right, nationalist forces would amount to a popular rejection of Macron’s vision. It could also paralyze the workings of the European Union, allowing populists to slow or block trade deals and budgets while placing like-minded allies in powerful leadership positions.

At home, Macron, a former investment banker with no previous experience in elected office, has recalibrated his political course in the face of the Yellow Vest protests, lightening, a bit, the tax burden on the working class.

But in Europe, the French president has shown little inclination to trim his ambitions for tighter integration — in finance, budgets, defense and immigration strategy — even as they have already been largely shredded.

No matter the outcome of the elections, his plans have been hamstrung by the indifference to the European project of citizens in France and beyond, the reticence of Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and a newly empowered front of populist leaders on both sides of the Atlantic who mock him.

Undaunted, Macron called for a “European Agency to Protect Democracy,” a “European Council for Interior Security” and a “European Climate Bank” in his open letter to citizens.

In terms of support, the silence has been deafening. The derision has been unstinting, and the tensions have been mounting, even with European allies, to the point that Macron briefly recalled France’s ambassador to Italy this year.

“We’re the ones who don’t want anything to do with Merkel, Macron, and those who ruined the European Union,” the Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, who has led the populists’ charge, said last week.

“We want to save the Europe that doesn’t have anything to do with bureaucrats, bankers, financiers, and with those who have been in power,” said Salvini, whose face appears on Le Pen’s campaign brochures.

Macron’s European friends have been gentler, but the rejection — or at least the standoffishness — has been no less unmistakable.

“There are differences of mentality between us as well as differences in how we understand our roles,” Merkel said in a recent interview with the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. “Certainly, we struggle with each other.”

Yet Macron cannot seem to reconcile himself to the fact that the Germans have a far less sweeping vision of the European idea. In his letter, he presented a quasi-romantic notion of the bloc, calling it “a historic success” and lauding “the reconciliation of a devastated continent, in an unprecedented project for peace, prosperity and liberty.”

All of that is now threatened. Macron and his advisers are keenly aware of the stakes for his presidency and for the future of the EU, and they are urgently trying to make voters equally aware of them as well in an unusually heated prelude to the vote.

Most European elections elicit a collective yawn. Not this one. Commentators are calling the vote a rematch of the presidential election in 2017, when Macron trounced Le Pen — only this time, Le Pen could come out on top.

“I’m going to put all of my energy into making sure the Rassemblement National does not win,” Macron said.

One of Macron’s close advisers, who requested anonymity in line with the rules of the French presidency, acknowledged the stakes in a recent meeting with reporters.

“We can’t let people think this is just an ordinary moment,” the adviser said. “Europe is at risk, and everyone has got to be conscious of it.”

Turnout for European Parliament elections has steeply and steadily declined over the years — to the benefit of the anti-Europe forces who tend to use the elections as a protest vote. Le Pen’s party carried the last round, in 2014, in part because of minimal turnout.

Since then, her delegation in the European Parliament has missed votes, rarely proposes initiatives, and has been found to have used European money for party purposes, resulting in a fine of tens of thousands of euros.

This time, much will depend on whether Macron can rally enough enthusiasm among supporters of Europe to go to the polls. He and his subordinates have been making verbal assaults on the far right just about daily.

“On a whole range of subjects, their record is a catastrophe for the country, and for Europe,” Macron said last week of the French nationalists. “They’re the incumbents. What have they done? Voted against all of France’s projects for Europe, including those that would protect us.”

Macron’s team was especially scathing of Steve Bannon, the former adviser to President Donald Trump who was in Paris this week, with the criticism shading into an attack on both men.

“A strong Europe is a condition of our sovereignty and I can see that this bothers Mr. Bannon and Mr. Trump,” Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said in a Facebook Live appearance. The “far-right international” was bent on “destroying the EU,” he said.

Pascal Canfin, a prominent Macron candidate, called the National Rally a “useful idiot of this political project, the Trojan Horse of Trump and Putin.”

Le Pen makes no secret of her hopes for a broad nationalist alliance in the European Parliament, if her party is successful.

“A really big group” is in the process of forming, Le Pen said, with europhobe nationalists from rising far-right parties in Austria, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany and Slovakia.

She and her lieutenants have been finding a receptive audience working-class towns in the heartland of the revolt against Macron, where factories are closed, farmers struggle, and jobs and prospects are scarce.

“They are for France,” said Didier Margris, a septic-tank specialist who was in the crowd at a National Rally gathering on a recent night in Abbeville, home to 23,000 people, about 100 miles north of Paris.

Well over a hundred supporters — retired teachers, factory workers, former military personnel, small-business owners in jeans — packed into a small hall to hear Le Pen’s surrogates denounce immigrants, open borders and “Papa Juncker and Mama Merkel,” as they referred to Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission; and the German chancellor.

To carry her nationalist message, Le Pen has been deploying a 23-year-old party militant from the troubled Paris suburbs, Jordan Bardella.

“I refuse to excuse myself, to apologize, for being French,” Bardella told the crowd in Abbeville, to hard applause. “The French state’s resources should be going to the French,” he added. “If there’s one good reason to vote for us, it’s to stop Macron.”

It was a stark contrast to Macron’s choice of a plodding technocrat as his standard-bearer, Nathalie Loiseau.

Loiseau once headed the very institution Macron now proposes abolishing as the symbol of the elite technocratic culture so despised by the Yellow Vests, the École Nationale d’Administration, or national school of administration. Lately, she has been his European affairs minister.

Loiseau’s political challenges were evident at a rally on a recent Saturday in Strasbourg, where a cavernous meeting hall swallowed up the crowd of pro-Macron faithful.

In a monotone, she appealed to European values of reason, democracy, civilization. Without mentioning Le Pen, she warned about the rise of hatred and intolerance in contemporary Europe.

“This is how fascism begins,” Loiseau said in Strasbourg. “You take it on the chin, and by then it is too late to get rid of it.”

The Strasbourg meeting was punctuated by videos of support from Macron’s European allies, and expressions of support for a more integrated Europe.

None of that was to be found in Abbeville, a town devastated by the world wars, and almost entirely rebuilt after it was bombed by the Germans.

“I’ve always been against Europe,” said Ronald Passard, a retired teacher at the meeting. “I certainly don’t want the neighbors messing around in my business.”


2019 New York Times News Service