WHEN EMMANUEL MACRON peers under his Christmas tree this year, he will find that le Père Noël has left him an unusually big, tantalisingly shiny, but awkwardly shaped gift. Call it a year in a present. For 2022 brings a double challenge. From January for six months, France will run the European Union’s rotating jamboree, the presidency of the Council of the EU. Yet Mr Macron is also expected to be campaigning for re-election as French president in April. To run Europe, as the job will doubtless be portrayed at home, as well as France, sounds like a Macron fantasy come true. For other Europeans, the president’s gift, like a toy trumpet, could turn out to be noisy, unpredictable and exhausting.
This is not the first time the rotating presidency coincides with a French election. In 1995 a frail François Mitterrand did a four-month stint, before handing over to his successor, Jacques Chirac, for two. Squads of bureaucrats ensure continuity. These days the rotating EU inter-ministerial presidency is largely procedural. Much of the stuff to be discussed in 2022—the regulation of big tech and hate speech online, an external-border carbon tax, a minimum wage—has been in the works in Brussels for months.
But Mr Macron is not one to let process hobble his ambition. There he was beneath the chandeliers at the Elysée Palace on December 9th, setting off an avalanche of ideas under the cryptic heading “recovery, power, belonging”. Europe, he declared, will finalise a common security-threat assessment, discuss new rules on deficits and debt, agree to green clauses for future trade deals, rework the border-free Schengen zone, and more. There will be summits on the ocean, Africa, a new European growth model and the Western Balkans. The overarching aim, he declared, was to fashion a Europe “powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its destiny”. Nothing less.
Those who had thought Mr Macron might scale back his grand vision were bamboozled. Days earlier an official report, led by Thierry Chopin at the Institut Jacques Delors, had advised “more humility” and less grandstanding: in its words, “more Robert Schuman, less Victor Hugo”. Fellow Europeans do not like to feel bossed about by France. Many suspect it of wrapping national interest in an EU flag. But his lofty European ambition helped to propel Mr Macron into the French presidency in 2017, and in office it shaped a landmark speech at the Sorbonne. A return to that zeal also marks, unofficially, the start of his re-election campaign.
To see how these two political moments might interact, consider a project in the northern industrial town of Douai, which sits amid flat agricultural plains on the edge of a mining basin. Mounds of harvested sugar beet lie on the dark earth in surrounding fields. Terraced two-storey homes are of the distinctive red brick of the French north. On the town’s fringe, next to a vast boxy Renault car plant, work will soon begin on a “gigafactory” to build electric-vehicle batteries. With €200m ($225m) in public subsidy, under the EU’s green-deal rules, and a private-sector investment of €2bn, the plant could employ over 2,000 workers by 2030.
For Mr Macron, who toured the site six months ago, the gigafactory exemplifies his Sorbonne vision of “European sovereignty” or “strategic autonomy”: the reinforcement of the EU’s ability to build, decide and defend itself more. Back then Mr Macron was judged a dreamer, protectionist, or worse. But the European conversation has shifted. Even Germany’s new coalition government, under Chancellor Olaf Scholz, embraces “strategic sovereignty”, a term that conveniently merges two of Mr Macron’s own. Douai, so to speak, is where the tyres of the Macron Euro-vision hit the road.
Locally, the factory is welcomed as a means of “anchoring” Douai and showcasing its industrial culture, says Frédéric Chéreau, the Socialist mayor. Jobs are much needed. There is talk of an “electric valley”. Yet the plant also exposes two problems for Mr Macron. First, the investor, Envision AESC, is Sino-Japanese. Although batteries will be French-built, this hints at the limits to European self-sufficiency. Second, voters may not thank the centrist Mr Macron for it. In 2017 Douai backed him in the second round, but in the first preferred the populist-nationalist Marine Le Pen and the hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The rust belt is not Mr Macron’s natural territory, however many new factories have emerged on his watch. The EU, says Douai’s mayor, is seen as a “necessary evil”, not a force that stirs the mind or warms the heart.
O come, o come, Emmanuel
Indeed, Europe as a campaign theme has just got trickier for Mr Macron. Polls had suggested that his chief opponent would be Ms Le Pen. He champions the EU; she derides it; nobody is confused. Yet the election of Valérie Pécresse, a pro-European ex-budget minister, as the centre-right Republicans’ nominee blurs that line. Polls give her a good chance of facing Mr Macron in the run-off; one says she could beat him. Europe does not divide the pair. Mr Macron will try, instead, to use the EU to expose the Republicans’ internal divisions over it, which helped him in 2017 to steal so many of them, and which Mrs Pécresse may struggle to disguise. But it will be harder.
The president’s present carries other risks. As Mr Macron criss-crosses France, and home news channels label him “le président de l’Europe”, rival candidates will denounce unfair electioneering. As he pushes pet projects, such as the reform of EU fiscal rules, other countries will struggle to consider France an honest broker, not least because of its own rule-busting budgets. Smaller countries are anyway wary. They recall that the last big country in charge, Germany, pushed through a controversial investment pact with China in the closing days of 2020, to others’ irritation.
Mr Macron’s Christmas present may yet turn out to be just what he asked for. Success in Europe could help him secure victory in France. But neither is by any means guaranteed. The president could end up wishing that he had simply asked for socks. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the headline “A bittersweet Noël”