“Ode to Joy” or “La Marseillaise”?


As the French president’s European enthusiasm wanes, partly due to the geopolitical climate, the French nationalists take to the streets

According to French President Emmanuel Macron Europe is a shield and it protects you even when all around the European continent things are in turmoil – America is stepping away, Russia is turning aggressive, the British are scattering in every direction – and on the continent, within the European Union, the nationalists are joining forces and put themselves forward as an alternative to the integration process and the idea that the closer we stick together, the stronger we’ll be.

Macron won the 2017 electoral campaign by wrapping himself in the blue starred banner and equating French and European interests, the Marseillaise and the Ode to Joy played in unison, promising a collective reawakening: “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its past and turns a blind eye on its tormented present”, was what the pro-European Macron told Strasbourg, defending the authority of democracy over authoritarian democracy.

The French president’s European thrust has been stalled by his many internal and external problems. For some time now, the young Macron is always ranked among the ‘weak’ leaders in Europe: alongside Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who is organising her own succession (with a care and a determination that should be inspirational for many other western politicians) and Theresa May, the British prime minister who is wrenching the United Kingdom away from the EU family.

For those who see Europe in decline, Macron’s weakness lies in his inability to stoke the European dream, while Donald Trump has already changed his mind about his “favourite” Macron (ages seem to have passed since the hugs and handshakes during Macron’s visit to Washington and Trump’s “I like this guy” at the press conference) and now considers Europe as an unruly and unreliable ally and harps on about the “European scroungers” that have always got under the US’ skin. And while Russia blithely pursues its destabilization programme, with European chaos its ultimate goal, however it pans out (though sovereigntist and nationalist would be ideal).

Macron’s weakness, once again in the eyes of the defeatists, can also be pinned on the internal offensive launched by the ‘yellow vests’, which has taken the palace by surprise and forced it to yield in certain areas and rethink others: from the outset the ‘gilet’ have been touted as a symbol of the revolt against Macron, not just as French president, but primarily in his role as spokesperson for a liberal, open and pro-European outlook that is wrong and doomed. The support garnered by the protests from the RT broadcaster, close to the Kremlin, in its French version and far right American websites reveals the fact that the protest against the rise in fuel prices are now more of a pretext for the ongoing day-glo demonstrations. A  Europe living in fear and a Europe of opportunity, lined up one against the other, in the streets, for months, and we’ll find out who won at the end of May.

There’s also another line of criticism, also embraced by those decrying Europe’s decline, and it concerns the cooling of Macron’s reformative urge on the European front: in 2017, in his overly broadcast address at the Sorbonne, when there were still programmes afoot to bolster our shield, the French president had envisaged a series of measures designed to rebuild the European edifice. Now everything’s changed. Paris is once again on the defensive, and it’s more about all hands on deck, but the vultures forget to underline that we’re all in the same boat, and it’s not Macron against the rest, it’s us against the defeatists.

Every criticism contains an element of truth: Macron’s popularity has collapsed, European supporters are no longer making their voices heard, his image as a rather arrogant soloist has widened the chasm between the expectations from below, and the promises from above. And the promised reforms have not been carried through because the intra-European dialogue is now fragmented and vexed: if we can’t all chastise a vicious regime like Venezuela’s, it’s hardly likely we’ll manage to find an agreement to strengthen the euro zone or club together to solve the migration problem. Macron seems to have lost his ability to connect the various European projects: the Mediterranean alliances on which the French leadership had pinned its hopes at the start of his mandate are not working, and Italy, with its anti-French rhetoric, is partly responsible, while Northern Europe is trying to forge ahead alone, prompted by Dutch leader of Mark Rutter, the instigator of liberal European reforms who pays little heed to the inefficiencies of the South.

For all these reasons only the Treaty of Aachen, the embrace between Macron and Merkel and the solid French-German engine are the only believers, albeit on a mostly symbolic level, in Europe’s future. Europeanism has made many a detour but has finally gone back to its first love, and this, whatever the defeatists say, is not a step backwards: it’s about going back to first principles. The same principles that are improving Macron’s popularity and strength, because when the details of the clash that awaits the continent at the next European elections are known, it’s much harder to nit-pick about the liberal president.  

During the electoral campaign, Macron wants to reiterate the concept of ‘protection’. This aspect is more likely to win over the hearts and minds of Europeans more than any reform (besides being much more immediate). Protection encompasses the economy – against the trade wars between America and China and the protectionist attitudes spreading to every corner of the globe, and defence, the creation of a European army, but most of all it concerns the European social pact, the capacity to create mechanisms that fuel the identity of the European project and underline its superiority over all the alternatives. So there’s an ideological clash in the offing between Macron and that part of Europe that wants to turn the EU into a cash point, an approach often favoured by Central and Eastern European countries, where the bridge with the West would have collapsed were it not for the generous EU funds, highly appreciated even by the most Eurosceptic governments such as the Hungarian and Polish ones. But there’s a deeper cultural aspect that goes well beyond the diplomatic squabbles and the technical tinkering behind the completion of the Banking Union.

The people of Europe are and will be better protected thanks to its double sovereignty, the national and collective one. The European identity is not an improvised jumble of geographically adjoining citizens that haven’t learned or no longer intend to comply with the regulations governing common spaces: the European identity is part and parcel of a promise of well-being and peace that must adapt to the times (and that’s where the reforms are needed), but so far has done a great job. Whenever surreal alternative formulas are concocted, such as the sulphurous illiberal democracy Viktor Orbán is so proud of in Hungary, France points out that the original agreement, that we grow economically together in what is also a political embrace, is what protects all the countries from all kinds of unfortunate deviations. In this regard, the Brexit negotiations are having an uproarious side effect: it’s raised our awareness that the single market is the best discovery since the war and that no such promising trade areas exist anywhere else in the world; it has reminded us that without European harmony we wouldn’t know where to put our rubbish; but it has especially shown that a united Europe can protect the collective interests, a superior interest, with a resolve that has rarely been encountered. That is what a protective Europe is about, it’s a shield that is not the simple sum of lots of smaller shields, it’s much more, and much greater: Macron has decided to bear this shield throughout the European campaign: behind it we can live in peace, and I promise that we will also work on putting our house in order.  


This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

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