Macron returns to the Sorbonne to warn of Europe’s mortality

Dramatic speech by French president calls for deeper ties between armies and bigger EU wallet

Six years after giving his first landmark speech on the future of Europe, Emmanuel Macron returned to the Sorbonne University’s amphitheatre this week for another set piece. But against the same stunning backdrop, the French president was speaking in a much-changed Europe.

Months after he was first elected in 2017, he set out an optimistic vision for the reform of the European Union. Now the tone was darker, with Macron sending grave warnings about the possible “death” of Europe if the bloc did not become a power that could stand entirely on its own feet.

Speaking to a crowd of several hundred people in the famous Paris university on Thursday, Macron said Europe needed to wake up to existential security and economic threats. “Our Europe today is mortal ... It can die and that depends solely on our choices,” he said.

In a speech which lasted almost two hours, he said Europe had overly relied on Russia for energy supply, and on the United States to help guarantee its defence. A powerful Europe was one that ensured its own security, he said.


“The very fact that war has returned to European soil but is waged by a nuclear-armed power, changes everything,” he said. “Our security depends on Russia not winning the war of aggression it is waging against Ukraine.”

There needs to be “genuine” strategic ties between national European armies, he said. Macron indicated this deepening of defence links could happen outside of the framework of Nato, the western military alliance that includes the United States.

European values and democratic norms were under threat, he said. “We must never forget that freedom cannot be taken for granted. It’s not something to be lazy about.”

Macron warned that the EU was at risk of falling behind the United States and China economically if it did not take bold steps. His talk of the union raising and spending vastly more money will likely discomfort Germany. In one specific policy proposal, the French president called for the European Central Bank to be given a much broader role.

He suggested a push to further tax the profits of multinationals where they are made, rather than where the companies are headquartered, a proposal Ireland would strongly oppose given the concentration of tech giants based in Dublin.

His return to the Sorbonne to deliver a big set piece speech has been viewed by some as an effort to jump-start a flagging European Parliament election campaign, before people vote in early June. Politically, the Macron project has been pockmarked by opposition to reforms to raise the pension age to 64, and before that by the large antigovernment “yellow vest” protests.

Around this time last year Macron’s Ensemble was polling slightly below Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party. The gap has grown wider. Recent polls have support for the far-right party at 31 per cent, with Ensemble trailing on 18 per cent. The far right’s campaign is being fronted by the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, a National Rally MEP who has become a fresh, popular face in French politics.

Reacting to the speech in a post on X, formerly Twitter, German chancellor Olaf Scholz said France and Germany wanted a strong Europe and that it contained some “good ideas”.

Domestically, Le Pen said Macron had been driven by “childish illusion” for years and had “sold” off French sovereignty when it came to immigration, debt and defence. Manon Aubry, a left-wing French MEP said his legacy could be summed up in three words, “arrogance, inequality, hypocrisy”.

Sébastien Maillard, an adviser to the Jacques Delors Institute, a Paris-based think-tank, said Macron had clearly set out his stall that Europe “must do without the US” if necessary. The Russian invasion of Ukraine had shown the proposals for more serious co-operation on defence within the EU six years ago had been correct, he said.

That first Sorbonne speech in 2017 was received as a call to push towards a much more integrated EU. The then-newly elected president’s proposals included the total alignment of French and German markets and a common EU defence budget.

The speech on Thursday appeared to be an effort to “seduce pro-Europeans” whose support Macron has since lost in France, while trying to avoid being labelled as wanting a federalist EU by opponents, Maillard said.

While Macron was on stage, a group of students and other pro-Palestinian activists protested against his stance on the war in Gaza at the nearby Pantheon monument, where there were small clashes with riot police. By that evening the protesters and heavy police presence was gone, replaced by the usual gaggle of tourists taking pictures and selfies.

In a student bar a few minutes walk from the Sorbonne, debates about the future of Europe were far from the agenda of the young people. One young man, smoking outside the bar, had no strong feelings about Macron, or his speech earlier that day. “I don’t know anything about politics,” he said.

Towards the back of the dimly lit bar, Fabien Duber (38), a self-described revolutionary socialist, was more forthcoming. Macron was an “agent of capitalism”, he said. There was huge income inequality in Paris, which was a city mainly reserved for high earners, he said.

A community cafe he volunteers for employs some people who live in squats, as they cannot afford accommodation. “These people are well dressed, they have clean hands, they work, but still they live on staircases. That’s Paris.”