Philip Stephens: Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May tell the tale of two nations

Optimism now belongs to the continent’s capitals. Growth is picking up, populists are in retreat

A government left paralysed by a botched election; a faltering economy; a spate of ugly terrorist attacks; a London tower block engulfed by an appalling fire. There are no visible connections here. The impact, though, is cumulative.

A year ago Britain voted to leave the EU. A vibrant nation, the Brexiters promised, would unshackle itself from a sinking continent. How fast the wheel can turn. The promised adventure - "global Britain", Theresa May, the now badly wounded prime minister, calls it - is suddenly freighted with risk. Politics could yet render Brexit impossible.

Across the channel, the winds are blowing in the other direction. Optimism now belongs to the continent's capitals. Growth is picking up, populists are in retreat. In Paris this week Emmanuel Macron, France's new president, put the finishing touches to his La République en Marche administration. The party did not exist two years ago. Now it has the "strong and stable" mandate denied to Mrs May's Conservatives.

Mrs May's joyless election campaign was rooted in hostility to Europe. Mr Macron declares that more Europe means more France. Last summer France was drowning in its habitual morosité. Paris now feels like London used to. Mood matters. You can find plenty in France, on the left and the right, who challenge the president's self-styled radical centrism. But you are left still with the sense that the French people are willing him to succeed.


Take back control, the Brexiters urged British voters a year ago. Now they confront the supreme irony. After a decade and more of dangerous drift France looks to have taken charge of its destiny. Britain is the nation that has lost its compass. Mrs May promised a “hard Brexit” - throwing up the barricades against EU workers and banishing all trace of the European Court of Justice. The voters, unsure of what they meant by last year’s decision to leave, denied her in the general election the authority to negotiate such a brutal rupture.

Young and inexperienced as he is, Mr Macron behaves like a president. France has long been a monarchy masquerading as a republic. The last two occupants of the Elysée Palace disappointed. François Hollande, a Parisian friend once told me, never really recovered from being photographed riding pillion on a motorcycle to visit his mistress. It might have been different had he had his hands on the controls. For his part, the effervescent Nicolas Sarkozy mistook bling for regal grandeur. Mr Macron has set about restoring the dignity of the office.

Cynics will tell you that the bubble will burst. Remember Barack Obama and all that hopey-changey stuff? And it is true that expectations of the 39-year-old president are so extravagant that he is bound to disappoint. But by the account of those who know him well, Mr Macron should not be underestimated. Sure, he has had his share of luck. The important thing is that he has never hesitated to seize his chances.

Three years working for Mr Hollande in the Elysée makes up for the absence of political experience. The new president learned about how to use power and, more importantly, saw how easily it can be squandered by those who temporise. The rapid timetable for the first batch of his proposed economic reforms - he wants liberalising changes to labour laws passed by the end of September - reflects a resolve to hold on to the initiative.

For the future of the EU, what counts is that Germany's Angela Merkel trusts the new president. Berlin will be watching closely the progress of reforms and the Ordoliberals advising the chancellor will doubtless also want to see cuts in the prospective budget deficit for 2018. Otherwise, France is set to find itself the only nation still in breach of the eurozone's "excessive deficit" rules. Such cautions apart, the organising assumption in Berlin is that Ms Merkel at last has a French partner she can do business with.

Loose talk of grand new structures of economic governance to buttress the eurozone’s monetary union overstate the willingness - not least of France - to surrender national control over tax and spending decisions. Yet if German voters give her a fourth, and presumably, final term in September’s election, Ms Merkel, as much as Mr Macron, will want to create the architecture for deeper European integration. And however much they protest otherwise, the Germans know they will have to pay.

Britain, of course, expects to be on the outside looking in. But no one in London quite knows how to open the exit. Mrs May’s plan “A” subordinated everything to closing the door to migrants from eastern and central Europe. Now her chancellor says the priority must be safeguarding the economy. Others in the cabinet seem to think cutting the flows of goods and people with Britain’s neighbours can somehow be rebranded as an exercise in openness. In any event, as things stand there does not seem to be a majority in parliament for any of the many versions of Brexit. Perhaps Britain will just fall out; perhaps it will withdraw its application to leave.

I had expected the French to be relishing the spectacle. How many times have they been lectured by the Anglo-Saxons these past few years? Mr Macron’s compatriots, though, seem more intent on redrawing their own future. What was it someone once wrote about seasons of darkness and springs of hope?

FT Service