by Theo Bourgery-Gonse
French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to defend a “sovereign Europe” ahead of European elections in June, but his recent conservative turn and willingness to mirror the far-right’s rhetoric on issues of identity and immigration may derail his campaign away from key EU matters.
In a televised press conference on Tuesday (16 January), Macron declared: “France will be stronger because the EU will be stronger. I’ve never opposed these two notions; I defend both as complementary.”
This echoes, in a neat and almost-perfect way, what the very same Macron, still flushed with his first presidential election victory in September 2017, said in his Sorbonne speech: “The time when France is proposing a force for Europe to move forward alongside willing Europeans is back”.
As he explained then, there cannot be one or the other, national or EU – both are building the then-radical idea of “a sovereign, united and democratic Europe”.
With the 2024 European elections a few months away, Macron is hoping to re-establish himself as the natural pro-EU candidate against the surging far-right Rassemblement national (RN), who intend to turn the June ballot into a midterm vote ahead of the 2027 presidential run they hope to win.
But it’s not all so straight-forward.
“There might be a risk that conservative and radical right-wing forces set the tone of the debates, turning the campaign towards domestic issues while moderate, pro-EU forces can do nothing more than react,” Thierry Chopin, special advisor at the Jacques Delors institute and political expert, told Euractiv.
A conservative turn
“The Rassemblement national, just like all extreme right [parties] in Europe, is first and foremost the party of collective poverty,” Macron said on Tuesday, claiming a far-right win in June would be the result of “lies”.
Polls, however, tell a different story. As of last weekend, the RN is firmly on top with 28.5% of votes, with Renaissance 10 points behind, at 18%, according to Elabe, a pollster.
So, Macron said, one must discredit the RN on facts, and go to the very heart of their political drivers.
“Fighting against illegal immigration is one of the answers” to keeping the extreme right at bay, Macron boasted, in an evident reference to the immigration bill adopted last December, the content of which veered right and took on some of the RN’s key demands, in an effort to secure a deal in a fractured parliament he no longer controls.
“On the one hand, Macron’s discourse is coherent with his 2017 Sorbonne speech,” Chopin said.
On the other, this comes alongside a new right-leaning and conservative narrative by Macron, rooted in “order” and “authority”, the expert said – two words heavily used throughout his press conference.
Proposals like testing school uniforms in a hundred schools across the country, bringing ‘civic instruction’ classes back in secondary school, or learning the French national anthem in primary school work best with conservative voters, Mathieu Gallard, a pollster, told Euractiv.
Meanwhile, the surprising appointment of Gabriel Attal as prime minister is a communications stunt in two ways: Attal is the country’s favourite political figure, but his growing popularity over the past three years is mostly due to a favourable conservative voting base.
Ultimately, with Macron moving towards the territory of the right-wing and far-right, the campaign is at risk of losing its EU flavour.
“Those two levels [national and EU] can only work together and the 2024 elections will determine the kind of collective action that’s possible in the face of such a complex, conflict-ridden world,” Jacques Delors’s Chopin warned.
Failure to address EU issues may not only dent Macron’s credibility as the pro-EU candidate – it might give political space to social democrat and federalist contender Raphael Glucksmann, who is now reaching 10% in voting intentions.
“We have five months [left] to choose over the Europe we want, at a time when, if Europe fails to grow to an adult phase, we could lose everything,” Glucksmann told Le Monde in an interview on Sunday (14 January).
Glucksmann, an adviser to then-Georgia President Mikheil Saakashvili before entering the European Parliament in 2019, set himself as a vocal EU lawmaker, chairing Parliament’s foreign interference special committee and leading the charge against China’s anti-Uyghur policy.
He told Le Monde he was calling for a “leap into federalism” and “green protectionism”, without which “we agree to be vassals or prey to [US or China] superpowers”.
If he manages to secure an alliance with the Socialist party and the Greens, he could top 18% of votes if all parties’ expected scores are added up.
Gallard said that “Glucksmann’s run is unlikely to change the name of the game”, noting that Macron’s voter base is mostly made of seniors who are unlikely to transfer their votes so easily.
“But if it comes at par with the Renaissance list, it would be disastrous for Macron”.
*first published in: Euractiv.com