Young but dissimilar French and Austrian leaders meet in Paris

Macron and Kurz emphasise areas of accord rather than disagreement

French president Emmanuel Macron, right, greets Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz as he arrives for a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on Friday. Photograph:  Ian Langsdon/EPA

French president Emmanuel Macron, right, greets Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz as he arrives for a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, on Friday. Photograph: Ian Langsdon/EPA

 

True to his credo of talking to everyone, President Emmanuel Macron received the new chancellor of Austria, Sebastian Kurz, for lunch at the Élysée on Friday. The opposition party Les Républicains accused Mr Macron of “rolling out the red carpet for the ally of the Austrian extreme right to save [Macron’s] European project”.

It was Mr Kurz’s first bilateral visit since he took office after striking an alliance with the far-right Freedom Party, which holds the key ministries of defence and the interior. The FPO’s leader, Heinz Christian Strache, is now vice-chancellor to Mr Kurz. He denies links with neo-Nazis.

Mr Macron acknowledged discomfort over Mr Kurz’s alliance with the FPO. “The constitution of his government created concern, and we talked about it openly,” he said.

Aged 31, Mr Kurz is not only the youngest head of government in Europe, but the youngest in the world. Mr Macron, who turned 40 last month, looked almost elderly by comparison.

At their press conference, the leaders emphasised areas of agreement. Both want to promote the emergence of European internet giants, and to ensure that US digital companies pay fair tax on their profits in Europe. Mr Kurz promised to hold “citizens’ consultations” on the future of Europe, as proposed by Mr Macron.

‘Good news’

The French president welcomed the “good news” that chancellor Angela Merkel is forming a coalition with the German SPD.

As if to reassure Mr Macron, Mr Kurz stressed that “Austria is a pro-European country. We have a pro-European government which would like to play an active and constructive role.”

Austria will assume the revolving presidency of the EU in the second half of 2018, and Mr Macron is eager to ensure that it not scupper his attempts to relaunch the EU, at a time when the union is increasingly divided between eastern and western members.

“Austria does not belong to the [right-wing central European] Visegrad group, and that will remain the case,” Mr Kurz told Le Figaro. But like the group’s members, Vienna takes a hard line against immigration. “A country like ours can create bridges in Europe to reduce tensions,” Mr Kurz said.