Macron’s optimism flags as opponents chip away at EU vision
French president takes flak over migrants, ecology and remarks about compatriots
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron: “The rise of extremes is almost a general rule, and France is an exception.” Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP
French president Emmanuel Macron took fire from every direction this week: from Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban and Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini; from French domestic opponents, and even from a German ally who seemed to renege on chancellor Angela Merkel’s promise to work with Macron to establish a budget for the euro zone.
In Milan on Tuesday, Orban and Salvini, the figureheads of the nationalist populist trend in European politics, singled out Macron as the “leader of pro-migrant parties” and their political enemy. “There are today two camps in Europe, ” Orban said. “Macron is at the head of political forces supporting immigration. On the other side, there are those of us who want to stop illegal immigration.”
Salvini, the head of the far right-wing League, which came to power with the populist Five Star Movement in June, said he and Orban represented “the right to work, to healthcare and security. Everything that the European elites financed by [the Hungarian-born US philanthropist George] Soros and governed by the Macron of the moment reject.”
Salvini mocked Macron’s decline in opinion polls and said the French leader “spends his time preaching to foreign governments when he should be the first to show solidarity by opening the [Franco-Italian] border at Ventimiglia”.
Orban and Salvini attacked Macron on the very day he was weakened by the surprise resignation of his popular ecology minister, Nicolas Hulot. But the French president welcomed their barbs. “If they think I’m their principal opponent, they’re right,” Macron said during a visit to Denmark. He would “in no way give in to nationalists and those who advocate this discourse of hatred”, he promised.
Macron has portrayed next May’s European elections as a referendum against what he calls the “illiberal democrats” of Italy and central Europe. He is staking the future of his République En Marche movement on its ability to galvanise what he calls “progressive forces” to become the leading force in the next EU parliament. He wants Europe to be “the model of this humanist refoundation of globalisation”, he told French ambassadors in his annual foreign policy address on Monday.
The tone of Macron’s speech was far less optimistic than a year ago. “All across the European Union, we see the fascination for illiberal democracy looming,” he said. “This European battle is only beginning. It will be long. It will be difficult. It will be at the centre of French action throughout my term . . . The rise of extremes is almost a general rule, and France is an exception.”
Hungary and Italy are against European solidarity, except when it comes to exploiting EU structural funding, in which case they became “opportunistic”, Macron said.
In his closing address to the ambassadors’ conference, foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian went further. “Member states are free to elect the leaders they want to,” he said. “But our vision of the EU . . . is not compatible with governments that don’t respect its fundamental principles, who do not feel bound by solidarity with the community, and who have a utilitarian approach to the union . . above all the redistribution of money . . . We are not ready to pay for that Europe.”
In the midst of his verbal joust with Orban and Salvini, Macron faced renewed criticism at home, over his record on ecology, as criticised by Hulot, for appointing Philippe Besson, an author who has written effusively about him, to be consul general in Los Angeles, and for a comment to the French community in Copenhagen.
Danish vs French
Macron praised the Danish model of “flexisecurity”, which combines mobility in the job market with generous unemployment benefits. “We mustn’t be naive,” he continued. “What is possible is linked to a culture . . . This [Danish] Lutheran people . . . are not exactly like Gauls, who are reistant to change! But we have something European in common which unites us.”
The far-right leader Marine Le Pen accused Macron of “contempt” for the French. The far-left deputy Alexis Corbière said the president considers the French a millstone: “One has the impression that he would like to change peoples. I propose changing presidents instead. It will be quicker.”
That the French resist reform is an oft-stated truism, but Macron’s opponents seize on his every pronouncement to attack him. The BVA monthly barometer poll published on Friday showed Macon’s approval rating has reached its lowest level, at 34 per cent.
In his speech to the ambassadors, Macron had vaunted the fact that he and Merkel agreed at their summit in Meseberg in June to establish a joint budget for the euro zone.
But in an interview with the Financial Times, Germany’s deputy finance minister Jörg Kukies appeared to renege on that commitment. “Why should we weaken the EU by establishing a parallel structure?” Kukies asked. Negotiating an EU budget for the 2020-2027 period was a more pressing issue, he said.