As Merkel tires, Macron emerges as Europe’s new leader

The French president is now seemingly unstoppable on the international stage

Over the past year Emmanuel Macron has become a seemingly unstoppable force, first in French politics and now on the international stage. Last week he defied Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly. This week he heralded the transformation of the European Union, in a landmark address at the Sorbonne.

Macron made dozens of proposals on Tuesday. He discussed some with the Italian prime minister, Paolo Gentiloni, at the Franco-Italian summit in Lyons on Wednesday, and he will go over them in detail at dinner with European heads of state and government in Tallinn, the Estonian capital, on Friday night.

Macron held back on his initiative until the German elections were over. Now he sees no reason to wait until Chancellor Angela Merkel forms her new government. He will address the German people at Frankfurt Book Fair, where France is the guest of honour, on October 10th.

Macron has become the de-facto leader of Europe through energy, intelligence and daring, but also by default. Pascal Lamy, the former head of the World Trade Organization, pleaded with Merkel and Macron's predecessor, François Hollande, at a Franco-German summit a year ago, as recounted in Marion Van Renterghem's biography of Angela Merkel.


“You two, Mme Chancellor, Mr President, it is up to you to give Europe a vision, a narrative. Enchant us!” Lamy said.

“Enchant people? These days?” Hollande said with a shrug.

“You are right,” Merkel said. “But I am not a poet. It’s not my thing. Don’t ask me to be the bard of Europe. I don’t know how.”

'Enchant people? These days?' Hollande said with a shrug. 'I am not a poet,' Merkel said. 'It's not my thing. Don't ask me to be the bard of Europe'

Merkel has been worn down by 12 years in power. Unlike Macron, she does not have a parliamentary majority. And she doesn’t want the mantle.

Macron is poetic. “I take the responsibility of . . . daring to speak of Europe with affection and ambition . . . I am not a self-hating member of the euro zone,” he told his rapt audience at the Sorbonne. But, as Macron knows, it is one thing to stir favourably predisposed students, another to capture the imagination of millions of EU citizens.

Macron believes the reforms he is carrying out at home give France new credibility in Europe. “The time when France proposes, to take Europe forward . . . that time has returned,” he said.

It's a sea change. "For the last quarter century, all European pride was banished from political discourse," Guillaume Tabard wrote in Le Figaro. "Euroscepticism was fashionable. Europhilia had become embarrassing. The adoption of the euro was the last federalist measure approved by the French."

Macron pleads for a Europe that defines itself through shared ideas and objectives, not process. He blames French leaders who often saw the European Parliament "as the second division of national politics". After the failed constitutional-treaty referendum in 2005, Europe entered a period of "glaciation" during which treaty change became "unspeakable" for France and financial transfer "unspeakable" for Germany. " There must be no more taboos, he says.

If Europe's citizens do not learn to love the union, nationalists 'who detest Europe' will win ever more votes in elections, Macron predicts

Macron attributes populist victories in the UK and US to unbridled competition, and quotes Jacques Delors on the need to balance "competition that stimulates, co-operation that strengthens and solidarity that unites".

If Europe’s citizens do not learn to love the union, nationalists “who detest Europe” will win ever more votes in elections, Macron predicts.

His speech was far more than a laundry list of proposals. "He is saying: 'This is what we can do together. It is up to all of us. We can add to or subtract from the list," says Bernard Guetta, a commentator on France Inter radio. "It's important to pull Europe out of the rut it's been stuck in."

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, the Franco-German leader of the May 1968 revolution, who was long a Green MEP, was ecstatic about Macron’s “magnificent” and “immense” speech.

Not since the Green German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, in 2000, had a European leader shown such vision, Cohn-Bendit said. "I hope Angela Merkel will dare to say what she does and does not agree with. I hope the Italians will do the same, that we'll have a real debate about the future of Europe. That's what I am applauding."

In France only the extreme right-wing Front National dared criticise Macron, as a "dogged and dogmatic Europist who wants to build Europe by destroying nations". But since it back-pedalled on leaving the euro the FN has lost credibility as an anti-European party.

One has the impression that Macron's 100-minute speech was so vast as to defy criticism. That did not prevent an outcry about the sale this week of significant French industries. The German company Siemens became the main shareholder in the French train-maker Alstom. And the Italian company Fincantieri is taking over the French STX shipyards.

For Macron national sovereignty has shifted to Europe. He believes matching French companies with European partners is the only way to create industrial champions capable of fighting off US and Chinese competitors.