Brussels Behind the Scenes: Macron's moment

Brussels Behind the Scenes: Macron's moment
Credit: EC

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES

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With SAM MORGAN

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Macron's moment

Russia’s war on Ukraine has no real winners, be it the million refugees that have already fled the country or everyday Russians set to be impoverished by a tanking economy. But one man who is set to benefit to some degree is a certain Emmanuel Macron.

French voters go to the polls on the 10 and 24 April in a two-round election meant to decide their next president. A couple of months ago, the result was no certain thing but is now looking like a foregone conclusion.

The incumbent, Emmanuel Macron, is ahead in every poll and is predicted to win big against whichever of his challengers manages to make the runoff.

It is in no small part thanks to the events of the last month in Ukraine.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


When Macron headed to Moscow for eleventh hour talks with Vladimir Putin about deescalating his military posturing on the Ukrainian border, the main thing people noticed was the huge table Russia’s president chose for the meeting.

France’s head of state returned home with little to show for his efforts and on first reading, was made to look very foolish by Putin when the Russian invasion was launched despite some assurances that war was not an immediate prospect. 'Macron will believe anything' some said.

Others decried this as Macron’s Neville Chamberlain moment. That infamous ‘Peace for our time’ declaration the British prime minister heralded in 1938, just a year before World War II broke out in Europe.

But this was not Chamberlainian on Macron’s part, this was – if anything – Merkelian. Macron should be lauded for his attempts to craft some sort of solution to the crisis and for essentially, being a grownup in the room. He is currently Europe's point man on the crisis and is in regular contact with Putin. That could prove invaluable if immediate deescalation is needed.

French voters are clearly thinking along the same lines, if the opinion polls are to be trusted. There is also another obvious factor counting in the incumbent’s favour: his opposition’s stance on Russia.

Moscow mules

The far-right’s Marine Le Pen’s positive attitude towards the Kremlin is well-documented, as is far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s soft spot for Putin. Éric Zemmour, a TV pundit-turned politician on the extreme right is also a Moscow dove.

All of them have attempted to row back their positions over the last week but their copy-books are already marked with indelible ink. Le Pen’s base will stick with her and likely power her to another round two defeat at the hands of Macron.

Zemmour was until relatively recently hailed by certain wings of the media as an outside bet to topple Macron. With every passing day that is revealed to be one one of the great misreads of modern European political analysis.

But where is the centre-right in all this? Valérie Pécresse was hailed as potentially France’s first ever female president and a relatively untainted candidate able to offer a genuine alternative to Macron, who would not have to rely on the extremes to get enough support.

She could even point to a clear hard line on Putin but it has still all gone rather wrong for Pécresse, who in many polls is not even in the top three at the moment.

Ultimately, her campaign never really got off the ground and she has failed to impose herself on current events. At one point she was exposed for asking for sanctions on Russia, even though they had already been approved by EU leaders.

Pécresse might also be a victim circumstance, as her Republicans party still struggles to have much of an identity in France’s political landscape and has not exactly been united behind one candidate since she triumphed in a December primary.

She may also have been tainted by François Fillon, a former Republicans prime minister who only belatedly resigned his spot on the board of a Russian petrochemical company last week.

Lack of credible opposition makes Macron’s reelection incredibly likely and his approach to his campaign shores up his chances further still. For example, the way he announced it – in an open letter – was modest but still did the job.

The once and probably future president is also preparing the ground for his next five years by making French citizens aware of the hardships ahead and the measures his administration is doing to mitigate them.

Whether that will be enough to get his party a strong parliamentary majority in elections that will run later in June is another question though.

EU matters

So what does this mean for the rest of Europe, in particular those countries that are EU members? Well the main knock-on effect will be that there will be continuity and a lack of immense upheaval that a change of president would have brought.

France is the current holder of the EU Council’s rotating presidency. French officials have a big say over the agenda and when it comes to brokering agreements on new laws, France is well placed to set the tone of the negotiations.

With Macron staying put, that gives Paris an extra two months of trying to get agreements on strategic interests like digital and climate policy done and dusted before handing over to the Czechs at the beginning of July.

Away from the shadowy hallways where EU deals are crafted, Europe gets another five years of le monde du Macron. German chancellor Olaf Scholz in particular will be among those thankful that France will not change leaders anytime soon.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Macron in his coming mandate will be what to do with NATO. Much of that will depend on what happens with the Ukraine-Russia crisis, which is impossible to predict currently.

Macron famously said that the military alliance is suffering from brain death. Russia’s invasion has exposed its limitations, so now it will be up to its members to decide how to cure NATO of its weaknesses.

We all know that France’s president is a man with big ideas and he will have plenty of time to try and make them a reality.

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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