Emmanuel Macron was brash and brimming with energy and ideas when he became the youngest president in French history in 2017. The past 5½ years have shown that an untested politician can become a seasoned leader at very high speed.
Macron has invited Taoiseach Micheál Martin for lunch at the Élysée Palace on Thursday, at a time when Europe is confronting energy and cost-of-living crises created by the war in Ukraine as well as accelerated global warming. Nationalist populists – “illiberal democrats” in Macron-speak – are gaining ground in France and across the EU. France’s relations with Germany, Italy and the UK have been strained by disagreement over such issues as defence and energy, immigration and the Northern Ireland protocol.
Regarding Northern Ireland, “France’s priorities are to protect the peace process and the single market,” says Ireland’s Ambassador to France, Niall Burgess. “Those are our priorities too… France is a critical relationship in Europe for us because France is an outsize player. Macron is one of the most senior voices on the European Council. His administration thinks and talks about the future of Europe.”
When Macron made his landmark address on Europe at the Sorbonne in September 2017, says Thierry Chopin, a political scientist at the Institut Jacques Delors and Sciences Po, he was perceived as a concepts man, a potential architect of the Union. “Very quickly he was forced into a different role, as a fireman.”
Macron’s presidency has seen unending crisis, from the “gilets jaunes” revolt to the Covid-19 pandemic to the invasion of Ukraine.
The €750 billion Covid recovery fund, which created shared European debt for the first time, was largely due to Macron’s efforts. France held the rotating presidency of the EU Council when Russia invaded Ukraine. Macron provided impetus for rapid agreement on sanctions against Moscow and EU donations of lethal weapons to Ukraine. “Exceptional decisions which would have been unimaginable a few months earlier,” notes Chopin.
Macron’s stewardship of the EU presidency this year was effectively truncated from six months to six weeks because of the French presidential election. “The time frame was reduced, but none of the ambition for the presidency was reduced,” says Burgess. “It was outstanding from an organisational perspective, and for the policy outputs as well.”
Burgess also counts Macron’s proposal last May for a European Political Community embracing the UK, EU candidate countries and others as a success. The EPC held its first meeting in Prague in October and plans another in Moldova next spring.
To use Jacques Delors’ term for the EU, the EPC remains something of an “unidentified political object”. Georgina Wright, director of the Europe programme at the Institut Montaigne, a liberal think tank in Paris, says the EPC “was a reaction to the Ukraine war, because there are issues that affect the whole Continent that go beyond the EU, and we need a platform where we can meet together at the highest political level and discuss them”.
Wright also praises the French EU presidency. “The French had an ambitious programme of more than 60 priorities, including defence, support for Ukraine, a more secure and fair digital market, and social policy with a framework to calculate the minimum wage,” she says. “They delivered and they delivered well… If you talk to people in Brussels they say, ‘France, they’re everywhere’. They’re hugely influential and effective. But that effectiveness is not being felt here in France.”
It takes years to build a reputation, a few seconds to destroy it— Georgina Wright, Institut Montaigne
Macron lost much of his lustre domestically in last June’s legislative elections, when the extreme right and extreme left won large numbers of seats and Macron’s absolute majority evaporated. The opposition has this autumn attempted five no-confidence motions, forcing prime minister Elisabeth Borne to govern by decree.
Domestic troubles may have dented Macron’s image, says Christian Lequesne, a professor at Sciences Po, “but in foreign and European politics, I don’t think it creates significant difficulties for him. It is typical for a French president serving a second term to concentrate much more on foreign than domestic policy”.
France’s European partners may not notice the sense of lethargy gripping the country, but they are concerned about its budget deficits. “Germany complains that French spending is out of control,” says Wright. On Monday, the International Monetary Fund warned France to reduce public spending more rapidly. “We supported [the pandemic era policy of] ‘whatever it costs’,” said Jeffrey Franks, mission chief for France at the IMF, “but it’s time to end it.”
The ministry of European affairs asked Thierry Chopin to head a study group on French leadership in the run-up to the EU presidency. They interviewed about 50 academics and politicians from 21 EU member states and concluded that, in Chopin’s words, Macron’s method “is not always humble or pragmatic, but is based on grand, sometimes exaggerated speeches. The style is great, but sometimes he goes too far, for example when he said ‘We mustn’t humiliate Russia’ or that Nato was ‘brain dead’… In terms of method, a little less style and a little more co-operative humility would be welcome.”
“France is often criticised for not consulting other states enough, when in reality that has improved,” says Wright. She praises efforts to reach out and consult member states and French citizens during the EU presidency, but notes that “It takes years to build a reputation, a few seconds to destroy it.”
The French president talks a lot and makes lyrical speeches. It’s the opposite for the German chancellor, who is less talkative, even taciturn— Thierry Chopin, Institut Jacques Delors and Sciences Po
A certain ambiguity in Macron’s rhetoric can also be counterproductive, says Chopin. “When France talks about ‘strategic autonomy’, what does that mean?” he asks. “Does it simply mean breaking dependency on outside powers like the US and China? Or does it also mean recreating ties of dependency within the EU, to the advantage of a country like France? This ambiguity weighs on the debate with our partners regarding defence.”
France’s desire for a sovereign European defence is one of its main differences with Germany, which places greater trust in a US-dominated Nato. The war in Ukraine has forced Germany to re-examine its relatively passive post second World War defence policy, and its reliance on Russian gas. As a result, Chopin says, Germany has become almost introverted.
Franco-German relations reached a low point last month, when the annual Franco-German joint council of ministers was postponed for lack of agreement. There are multiple irritants, aggravated by personality differences, says Chopin. “The French president talks a lot and makes lyrical speeches. It’s the opposite for the German chancellor, who is less talkative, even taciturn.”
EU member states from the former Soviet bloc believe France and Germany were too conciliatory towards Vladimir Putin. “You also have political forces inside French society, on the far right and on the far left, who are understanding of Putin,” says Lequesne. “These people are quiet at the moment, but I suspect the feeling is still there. Macron has to be cautious with that.”
Ireland’s small size, geography and military neutrality afford it the luxury of not taking sides in most disagreements between France and other partners. Relations between Dublin and Paris have rarely if ever been so close.
“Ireland now has to think in a different way about how we influence outcomes that are important to us at a European level,” says Burgess. “That requires a much deeper political engagement with France.”