Macron Hitches His Reelection to Europe

The French president rattled Washington—and his domestic political rivals—with a full-throated defense of Europe’s centrality.

By , an independent journalist based in New York.
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
French President Emmanuel Macron addresses a plenary session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Jan. 19. BERTRAND GUAY/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

On the eve of Emmanuel Macron’s remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, rumors were circulating that some of the parliamentary groups were reshuffling their speakers to use their time at the podium to critique the French president. The rumors weren’t wrong.

What is ordinarily a staid formality for a head of state to mark his country’s assumption of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union descended into nearly four hours of often bare-knuckle campaigning in what promises to be a bruising French presidential race this spring. The dust-up followed Macron’s speech outlining a particularly muscular—and particularly French—vision of the EU, one with, among other ambitious goals, a common defense against illegal immigration and security threats.

As concern grows that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be planning a further invasion of Ukraine, Macron seemed to splinter U.S.-Europe solidarity by calling for a return to four-party negotiations between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. That recipe, the “Normandy format,” was the initial European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

On the eve of Emmanuel Macron’s remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, rumors were circulating that some of the parliamentary groups were reshuffling their speakers to use their time at the podium to critique the French president. The rumors weren’t wrong.

What is ordinarily a staid formality for a head of state to mark his country’s assumption of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union descended into nearly four hours of often bare-knuckle campaigning in what promises to be a bruising French presidential race this spring. The dust-up followed Macron’s speech outlining a particularly muscular—and particularly French—vision of the EU, one with, among other ambitious goals, a common defense against illegal immigration and security threats.

As concern grows that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be planning a further invasion of Ukraine, Macron seemed to splinter U.S.-Europe solidarity by calling for a return to four-party negotiations between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. That recipe, the “Normandy format,” was the initial European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

“Sovereignty is freedom,” Macron told the assembly. “It is at the heart of our European project. It is also a response to the destabilizations at work on our continent.”

He went on to say that Europeans should work this out among themselves before sharing it with their allies in NATO and then proposing it to Russia for negotiation. Washington has been calling for a unified approach among NATO allies, which includes 21 of the 27 EU member states, in addressing the threat Ukraine feels from Moscow as Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border.

The Élysée, the French presidential palace, has begun walking back some of his comments, following a hurried call late Wednesday between Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief; U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in which they agreed on the need for a “strong, clear and united transatlantic front.”

“That’s why the United States and our allies and partners in Europe have been so focused on what’s happening in Ukraine,” Blinken said on a tour of Europe this week. “It’s bigger than a conflict between two countries. It’s bigger than Russia and NATO. It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action.” Blinken, who was in Ukraine on Wednesday and will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, said the United States will continue to work with allies and partners throughout the international community.

But in Strasbourg, Macron went further in terms of Europe’s autonomy. He dedicated France’s six-month leadership of the EU Council in setting the European agenda to, among other things, formulating a real strategy in terms of industry, defense, and technological independence and making its voice heard on the issues of “strategic armaments, conventional arms control, transparency of military activities, and respect for the sovereignty of all European states, regardless of their histories.”

Macron, not unusually for a French president, has been signaling for years his desire for greater European sovereignty and “strategic autonomy”—his code for greater independence from U.S. security policy. He originally sketched out his vision of a powerful and sovereign Europe at the start of his term, in a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in 2017, when he began by saying that anyone who was already tired of hearing him talk about Europe would just have to get used to it.

Macron has known since then that his reelection campaign would occur during his country’s turn at setting the EU agenda. But hitching his campaign to the EU’s flag is both a risk and an opportunity for the French president.

Macron’s enthusiasm for the EU made him an “attractive novelty” when he was elected in 2017, and it is only natural that he is now trying to use the French presidency of the EU Council as a springboard for his reelection, said Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution. “The only drawback is that Europe is even more politicized than before,” she said.

The other leading candidates in the French presidential race are all more skeptical of the EU. Far-right candidates such as Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour have long characterized the push to strengthen EU institutions as an attack on French national sovereignty. Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for France’s center-right Les Républicains, which traces its roots to the political party founded by Charles de Gaulle, criticized the decision to hang the EU flag beneath the Arc de Triomphe on New Year’s Eve for the debut of the country’s EU presidency. Although left-wing parties tend to be more supportive of the EU, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leading candidate on the left, wrote a 2019 op-ed in the Guardian that was critical of Macron’s vision of Europe, the EU treaties, and the Franco-German alliance in Brussels.

Macron may not be officially on the campaign trail, but the political party that he founded has been busy connecting the dots. La République en Marche!—which roughly translates as “France on the Move!”—doubled down on the image of the EU flag flying at the Arc de Triomphe with posters and leaflets with the image and the campaign slogan “Change Europe to Advance France.”

One of Macron’s close advisors on Europe believes that in the more than four years since the president took office, some EU member states have come around to his conception of European sovereignty. “The debate has progressed,” the advisor said. “No one in Europe is trying to encourage, for example, the United States to do less for Europe but to have Europeans do more for themselves.”

More to the point, the French have grown decidedly fonder of the EU. In 2016, a year before Macron’s election, 38 percent of French held a favorable view of the EU, making them more Euroskeptic at the time than Britons in the year of Brexit. Since then, the French approval rating of the EU has rebounded to 61 percent.

But most member states experienced a similar rise in support for the bloc after the shock of Brexit and as the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the EU distributed generous financial support and COVID-19 vaccines to member states. The French continue to express less enthusiasm for the EU than the citizens of other member countries, such as Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands, where nearly three out of four respondents in a recent poll said they viewed the EU favorably.

That may offer a clue to Macron’s reception at the 705-member European Parliament, where members sit with their political groups, which are multinational organizations representing like-minded parties, rather than with representatives from their own nations.

Yannick Jadot, the Green Party candidate in the French election, who gave remarks on behalf of the Greens despite not being the group’s parliamentary leader, blamed the French president for the deaths of migrants in the English Channel and criticized him for supporting natural gas and nuclear energy, a debate that has divided the ordinarily tight partnership between France and Germany at a time of soaring energy prices. He said, “You will go down in history as the president of climate inaction.”

In a whiplash moment, Jadot was followed by Jordan Bardella, Le Pen’s deputy in France’s far-right National Rally party, who is also not the leader of his parliamentary group. He used his time at the microphone to blame Macron for a wave of immigration and to call for his election defeat.

Bardella’s tone, although not his positions, was echoed when Manon Aubry spoke for the left in the European Parliament. She said the French presidency of the EU was being sacrificed on the altar of Macron’s ambition, but after the French election, there would be two months to turn things around with someone else in power. Aubry is a member of the left-wing La France Insoumise (“Unsubmissive France”) party, which is running Mélenchon as its candidate for president.

Polls suggest that Macron, who has consistently been coming in first, with around 25 percent in the first round and with a significant lead over his most likely challengers in the second round, will prevail in the April election. But one thing Strasbourg has made clear: Europe will be a make-or-break issue for Macron’s hopes of staying in the Élysée.

J. Alex Tarquinio is an independent journalist based in New York and the past national president of the Society of Professional Journalists.  Twitter: @alextarquinio

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.
Oleg Salyukov salutes to soldiers during Russia’s Victory Day parade.

Stop Falling for Russia’s Delusions of Perpetual Victory

The best sources on the war are the Ukrainians on the ground.

A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia
A fire rages at the Central Research Institute of the Aerospace Defense Forces in Tver, Russia

Could Sabotage Stop Putin From Using the Nuclear Option?

If the West is behind mysterious fires in Russia, the ongoing—but deniable—threat could deter Putin from escalating.

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi is received by his Kenyan counterpart, Raychelle Omamo, in Mombasa, Kenya.

While America Slept, China Became Indispensable

Washington has long ignored much of the world. Beijing hasn’t.

A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation
A bulldozer demolishes an illegal structure during a joint anti-encroachment drive conducted by North Delhi Municipal Corporation

The World Ignored Russia’s Delusions. It Shouldn’t Make the Same Mistake With India.

Hindu nationalist ideologues in New Delhi are flirting with a dangerous revisionist history of South Asia.