When Emmanuel Macron entered the lions' den of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday to present his plans for France's six-month presidency of the EU, he was savaged by MEPs, most but not all of them French.
Only a few, including Macron's acolyte Stéphane Séjourné and the Belgian MEP and former prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, offered encouragement.
The dispute was at times so Franco-French that Roberta Metsola, the new president of the parliament, repeatedly reminded the assembly, "This is not a national debate."
Radio commentator David Abiker likened the proceedings to a bus full of noisy, egocentric tourists visiting a foreign city. Some MEPs expressed dismay. The session was "not my cup of tea", tweeted German MEP Reinhard Butikofer.
Others had joined in the free for all. Manfred Weber, the German leader of the conservative PPE group, opened hostilities. Weber has not forgiven Macron for opposing his bid to become president of the EU Commission in 2019.
“We don’t need more words. We need action!” Weber said, in an apparent allusion to Macron’s penchant for long-winded speeches. Macron’s habit of pitting “progressives” against “populists” was unhealthy, Weber said. The candidacy of Valérie Pécresse, the conservative politician who poses the greatest threat to Macron’s re-election, was “healthy”.
Yannick Jadot, the MEP and environmentalist presidential candidate, accused Macron of inaction on climate change, and of concluding a "climaticide" pact with Hungary and Poland by working to qualify gas and nuclear power for EU subsidies as non-carbon energy.
Manon Aubry, from the far-left party France Unbowed, called Macron the "president of contempt" who "breaks our social rights, represses demonstrations and doesn't give a damn about the climate emergency".
Macron was repeatedly accused of using the EU presidency as a stepping stone to his own re-election. But it was the French MEPs, not Macron, who transformed the Strasbourg assembly into what l’Alsace newspaper headlined as “the French debate in the European Parliament”.
Jordan Bardella, the right-hand man of far-right leader Marine Le Pen, accused Macron of "weakening" France through his "cynicism and contempt" and undermining the right of the French to decide who enters their country. "Will Europe still be Europe if mosques are everywhere, if people swear allegiance to the sultans of Turkey and Morocco?" Bardella asked.
Macron took notes and replied factually to Jadot and Aubry regarding climate policy and Covid vaccine patents. As for Bardella, “You very methodically spoke rubbish,” he said.
If Europe is to become the political power which Macron hopes for, it must more resemble a national body politic. That was why Macron tried, but failed, to obtain EU-wide lists for EU parliamentary elections. On Wednesday, his presence electrified the often-sleepy assembly in Strasbourg.
There may be a broader French consensus on Europe than it appears. Le Pen no longer wants to abandon the euro for the French franc, nor hold a referendum on "Frexit". A study conducted by Harris Interactive and published on Le Grand Continent website shows that roughly three-quarters of the French want European defence, which it defined as "a collective strategy and a common army". Supporters of the extreme right-wing candidate Eric Zemmour remain "the only truly Europhobic force", the study concluded.
Macron played an important role in fostering the EU’s €750 billion Covid recovery fund, and in ensuring the union’s successful vaccination policy. He is gambling on a pro-EU consensus in France for his own re-election.
In Strasbourg, Macron spoke of the “three big promises” of Europe, for democracy, shared progress and peace. Without naming Hungary and Poland, he warned that “our generation is rediscovering the precariousness of the rule of law and democratic values . . . History is stuttering”.
Macron proposed that the EU parliament be allowed to initiate legislation, a privilege that was until now reserved for the European Commission. And he called for protection of the environment and the right to abortion to be incorporated into the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
In coming weeks, Macron promised, the French presidency will present texts that will offer “good jobs, with decent minimum wages for all, reduce wage inequality between men and women, create new rights for employees of digital platforms, introduce quotas of women on company boards, fight against all forms of discrimination”.
Macron called for dialogue with Russia, an issue which divides former subjects of the Soviet bloc from western Europeans.
“Our ability to invent a possible dream, to make it tangible, to make it a reality that is useful to our citizens is the key to our success,” the French president concluded.
France is doubtless more ambitious for Europe than any other member state. Prof Nicole Gnesotto, a historian and the vice-president of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris, says the French presidency is occurring at a fortuitous time. Europe's "big four" – France, Germany, Italy and Spain – "want Europe to move from being a global reference to being a world power".
Gnesotto has just published a book entitled Europe: Change or Perish. She quotes the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeir, who once called Europe “a vegetarian in a carnivorous world”. In a play on Nietzsche’s statement that the goal of all human impulses is “the will to power”, Gnesotto says that Europe’s “most constant and serious failing is its will to impotence”.
When Europe was founded in the 1950s, it entrusted its defence to the Atlantic Alliance, ie to the US, and made the liberal economic model its raison d’être, Gnesotto continues. “Today, the trans-Atlantic relationship is in crisis, for the US have pivoted towards Asia and no longer protect Europe. The liberal model is also in crisis, because it creates huge inequality.”
If the EU is to survive, Gnessotto says, it must abandon its obsession with markets and competition, and instead concentrate on social policy, solidarity and sovereignty. This new vision for Europe is beginning to take form, in the speeches of Emmanuel Macron, in think tanks and in EU forums.