ALONGSIDE DOZENS of their peers, today’s leaders of France and Germany—Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel—walked in moving spectacle to the Arc de Triomphe on November 11th, a century after their countries’ murderous guns fell silent. “Will this be the resounding symbol of a lasting peace between nations?” asked Mr Macron of the assembled potentates, including Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin; or “a last moment of unity before the world darkens into a new disorder?”
Mr Macron’s grave words frame what is set to become a polarising debate in Europe over the coming months: between the defenders of the liberal order and post-war institutions, and the rising forces of nationalism. Ahead of elections next May to the European Parliament, the French president has boldly (some might say hubristically) cast himself as the guardian of the continent’s democratic values, and loses no opportunity to underscore what is at stake. “Old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos,” he declared, to a scowling Mr Trump and a poker-faced Mr Putin in Paris. Mr Macron does a fine job of laying out the battle of values confronting Europe. Yet if the French president is to do anything about it, he needs two things: first, a solid centrist political base at the European level, like the one he forged last year in France with En Marche. Then, he needs to win support for his European reform agenda from other countries, especially Germany.
A year ago, there were high hopes within Mr Macron’s team that La République en Marche (to give the party its full name) could repeat his feat and up-end the European party balance, too. The French president was the poster boy for pro-European centrists, as popular at home as he was courted abroad. Today, despite a record of domestic reforms, the president’s star has waned. His poll ratings have tumbled. He now faces a revolt by motorists, who are planning a huge protest on November 17th over green fuel taxes. And En Marche is struggling to raise its profile in Europe.
“Our objective is to create a new political group that can bring together different parties and end the domination of the EPP,” says Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, the En Marche deputy who co-ordinates European party recruiting, referring to the broad centre-right group. Home to Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats, the EPP is the biggest in the European Parliament. A new group, insists En Marche, will be founded only after next May’s elections, since Mr Macron currently lacks any Euro-MPs. No polls suggest that a new centrist group could supplant the EPP. But it might just become a decisive second force.
The ambiguous plan
The contours of En Marche’s strategy to achieve this are beginning to emerge. At their congress in Madrid on November 10th, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), which reaches from Nordic and Dutch liberals to Spanish centrists, announced that it will hook up with Mr Macron’s party to campaign next May. En Marche hopes to agree on campaign issues and assumes (perhaps wrongly) that Mr Macron will be its figurehead.
What remains unclear, though, is the nature of this partnership. Viewed from Paris, it is a non-exclusive “collaboration”, which will allow En Marche to keep seeking other friends and maintain its independence from a group perceived in France as too “liberal”. There is still talk of trying to peel away potential allies, such as Italy’s Democratic Party from the Socialists and Democrats or even German Greens on the left, or Greece’s New Democracy from the EPP on the right. The hope is that Mr Macron’s political clout, combined with En Marche’s seats, will enable them to impose a new group and bring ALDE on board.
Yet at most Mr Macron can hope to win around 20 seats, whereas ALDE expects 70-odd. If he comes in behind Marine Le Pen, his Euro-star will be tarnished. En Marche hopes its French candidate line-up will reach from the Greens to the centre-right around Alain Juppé, a former prime minister. But it has yet to secure a suitably prominent figure, such as Pascal Canfin, a Green and head of France’s World Wide Fund for Nature, to head its party list. Moreover, Mr Macron has so far made no progress in winning new recruits. Unless he can do so, En Marche will end up being swallowed by ALDE, not the other way round. One source calls En Marche’s strategy a “classic case of Macronist constructive ambiguity”.
All this manoeuvring matters because Mr Macron wants to secure influence in the European Parliament in order to shape the next European Commission, and therefore the union’s agenda. Unlike the EPP and the Socialists, which have each named a candidate to run the commission, Mr Macron wants to keep his options open on this point, too. His underlying aim is to secure an extra push for his European ambitions, first laid out in a speech at the Sorbonne over a year ago.
On this front, the frustration in Paris is clear. During 18 months in office, Mr Macron has visited 19 EU countries. On some matters, such as the setting up of Europe-wide universities, or a co-ordinating defence framework known as the European Intervention Initiative, he has made progress. His recent call for a “real European army”—which so irked Mr Trump, who wrongly claimed that Mr Macron wants it in order to protect Europe from America—was a way of referring in popular terminology to such efforts. Mrs Merkel this week backed the French idea, using the same phrase. But Mr Macron’s calls for substantial euro-zone reform, to protect the currency area from future shocks, have gone largely unheeded. An enfeebled Mrs Merkel, now on her way out, is unlikely to become any more obliging, especially if Mr Macron is trying to poach her group’s MEPs.
The stakes are high for Europe as well as for Mr Macron. Leadership on the continent is one way for him to regain authority at home. So, arguably, is a more confrontational approach to Mr Trump, who was treated in Paris to a French lecture on the difference between nationalism and patriotism, and responded with an anti-Macron tweetstorm. Perhaps the best hope is that such aggression, which Mr Macron chose not to dignify with a response, will unify the continent’s liberal-minded leaders and jolt them into getting on with fixing things rather than just making speeches about how they want to do so.