French voters may have their minds on other matters ahead of April’s election, but President Emmanuel Macron stands firmly for a strong Europe.
French President Emmanuel Macron at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 19 January 2022 (Bertrans Guay, Pool Photo via AP)
Foreign policy rarely determines the result of an election.
The last U.S. president to be defeated by events overseas was Jimmy Carter in November 1980. Before he lost to his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, revolutionary guards in Tehran had held 52 American embassy staff members hostage for a full year.
But the European policy of French President Emmanuel Macron has already helped set the tone for the French election in April.
France matters greatly to the 27-member European Union.
Only Germany has a larger population and a bigger economy. France is the largest country by area, bordering on six other EU states. Since the United Kingdom left the bloc in January 2020, France has the largest military forces in the EU and is its only nuclear power, with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Most French people support a stronger EU.
Macron is the most pro-European of leading French politicians. On the second round of the 2017 election, he trounced the Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen by a two-to-one margin. It would set off alarm bells throughout Europe if he were defeated in April.
With 10 weeks to go, that looks unlikely. A composite of opinion polls taken by five organisations in late January credited him with 25.5% in the first round of voting on Sunday, April 10. That is 7.5 percentage points ahead of his closest rival.
In the run-off round on April 24, Macron would defeat Valérie Pécresse of the mainstream conservative party Les Républicains by 53% to 47, the polls showed. His margin over Le Pen would be 57-43.
“All studies indicate that a clear majority of French people are in favour of the European Union and would like it to be even stronger,” French political scientist Roland Cayrol said in a telephone interview.
“A clear majority believes that problems such as employment, economic growth unemployment, immigration and climate change are best tackled at the level of the EU. We are stronger together. In spite of what some politicians and journalists would have us believe, most French people are not Eurosceptics.”
Cayrol, who helped set up the CSA polling institute and ran it for 22 years until 2008, added that while “most French people trust the EU, it is far from being a major concern” of theirs. Nevertheless, he expected it to “give a tone to the election campaign.”
France will have EU’s rotating presidency during its presidential election.
Macron has until March 4 to declare his candidacy and has so far kept voters and his opponents guessing. But many commentators said he effectively launched his campaign with a speech to the EU parliament in Strasbourg on January 19.
France took over the six-month presidency of the EU at the start of the year. In a sign of how alone he is among presidential candidates when it comes to supporting a stronger EU, Macron quickly came under fire from political opponents of all stripes when the EU flag — and not France’s — was flown under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at the start of France’s EU presidency.
In Strasbourg, Macron said he hoped to see the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights updated with “more explicit” language to protect the environment and “recognition of the right to abortion.”
It would require unanimous agreement of the 27 member states to amend the EU charter, and the current Polish government for one would not agree to recognise the right to abortion. Neither would Malta, which has outlawed the practice and whose representative Roberta Metsola was elected chair of the EU parliament the day before Macron’s speech.
Macron called for a concerted EU position on security and stability at a time when U.S. President Joe Biden has warned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine looks imminent.
The crisis over Ukraine offers Macron both an opportunity and a risk. Macron could use the EU presidency to burnish his foreign policy credentials by helping to lead European efforts to find a diplomatic end to the standoff over Ukraine.
But if talks broke down and armed conflict broke out in Ukraine, Macron’s opponents would lose no time trying to pin blame on him.
Climate change, while important to the French, will not loom large in the election.
On the environment, describing climate change as “the biggest challenge,” Macron said European nations must “transform our industries and invest in technologies of the future.”
The environment is not, however, expected to loom large in the French election.
Adam Plowright, author of The French Exception, the first biography of Macron in English, noted that only a couple of questions on the subject were put to participants in the four primary debates held by Les Républicains before Pécresse was chosen as the party’s candidate.
“The biggest environmental issue so far is wind farms, and only because some say they disfigure the French landscape,” Plowright said in an interview.
Roland Cayrol agreed, saying: “Climate change is seen as a very important problem, especially by French people under the age of 40, who are going to have live with it, but no one can see how to tackle it politically.”
But Macron “is keen to push the idea of a European carbon tax,” Plowright said.
“He wants to achieve a permanent loosening of EU budget rules. As he sees it, there is not enough flexibility to allow governments to invest heavily in green technology, for example.”
Macron’s presidency has been dominated by crises.
Since her defeat in 2017, Le Pen has dropped the demand that France withdraw from the EU’s common currency, the euro, and has muted her criticism of the EU bureaucracy in Brussels.
But last October, Le Pen paid a much publicised visit to Hungary to meet Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who challenges the EU’s rules on immigration.
Like the current Polish and Maltese governments, Hungary under Orbán believes that national legislation should take priority over EU treaties. Le Pen and Pécresse have endorsed the idea.
Aside from his support for the EU, it is not easy to define Macron politically. His election in 2017 was a political earthquake from which France’s traditional parties have yet to recover. What is more, for most of his time in office, policy has yielded place to crisis management.
From the autumn of 2018 until late in 2019, France was wracked by protests, sometimes spectacularly violent, led by people in high-visibility yellow jackets known in French as gilets jaunes. Initially aimed at increases in the price of diesel fuel and reduced speed limits on some rural roads, the protests quickly spread to include Macron’s style of governing and his personality, which detractors say is arrogant and aloof.
No sooner had the protests begun to lose intensity, COVID-19 struck. It has been the dominant political issue since March 2020.
Macron may not win a parliamentary majority.
“Macron’s first 18 months saw tax reforms and changes to the labour laws,” said Plowright. “Since then, it has been one crisis after another.”
Macron’s tax cuts enabled his opponents on the left to dub him “a president of the rich.” He has been unable to shrug off the accusation despite vast sums spent to protect small businesses from the effects of COVID-19 lockdown.
Another crisis was Brexit. Disagreements over fishing rights and migration have taken Anglo-French relations to their worst in decades and produced what seems to be personal animosity between Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Assuming that Macron is re-elected, a question mark hangs over his ability to push through legislation after the parliamentary elections in June this year.
According to Plowright, “His biggest failure has been political reform. The movement he created when he decided to run for president six years ago has not lived up to its promise to do politics differently.”
The movement, known as République en Marche!, won a comfortable majority with 308 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, in elections held soon after Macron’s victory in 2017.
But it failed to supplant traditional parties at lower levels of governance. Two years later, it won only 21 of the 79 seats reserved for France in the EU Parliament. Last year, it won control of just two of the country’s 95 départements and none of its 16 administrative regions.
The prospects for Macron’s party continuing to hold the legislative levers are dim after parliamentary elections, to be held over two rounds on June 12 and 19.
Three questions to consider:
- Why does France matter so much to the European Union?
- Why is it unlikely in current circumstances that the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights would be amended with more explicit language to protect the environment and recognition of the right to abortion?
- Why might Macron’s party not have a parliamentary majority even if he wins a second term as president?
Robert Holloway had a long career at Agence France-Presse as a journalist and editor before becoming director of the AFP Foundation, the international media training arm of the global news agency. A British-born French citizen, he joined AFP in 1988 and served as Sydney bureau chief, foreign editor, head of the English desk in Paris, United Nations correspondent in New York, deputy managing editor and acting editor in chief.