Apr 26, 2024

Macron’s Battle for his European Legacy

Emmanuel Macron’s second Sorbonne speech showed that the French leader wants to shape a European legacy that will outlast his presidency. In doing so, he also highlighted the major fault lines in the Franco-German relationship.

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on Europe next to slogans reading 'A powerful Europe' and 'A Europe that controls its borders' in the amphitheatre of the Sorbonne University in Paris, France, 25 April 2024.
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In the end, it was a typical speech by French President Emmanuel Macron that members of the government and MPs, journalists and students heard on Thursday morning at the Sorbonne in Paris. It was too long, as the president himself admitted after about an hour. It was also too complicated, many listeners agreed: for almost seven years, translators, analysts, and often Macron’s own advisors have struggled with the metaphors and the convoluted three, four or five-point plans expounded by the president, who has been frequently accused in France of no longer being able to reach his fellow citizens.

And yet it was a speech that no other current top politician in Europe would likely be capable of delivering. An emotional speech, sometimes angry and disappointed, then confident again, at times even rousing. A courageous speech, with a firework of analyses and proposals that addressed many pressing issues for the future of the EU. In between defense policy, the green and digital transformations of the economy and international trade policy, the protection of borders and asylum policy, and the threats to the liberal democracies of the West, one central concern dominated this long speech: the sovereignty of the European Union—an echo of his first Sorbonne speech of 2017, which has remained the obsession of the youngest and most pro-European president in French history.

Disappointments in Defense Policy

Right from the start, Macron measured himself against his own promises, particularly in security and defense policy, where strengthening the EU’s sovereignty is most urgently needed. In 2017, he proposed an EU intervention force, a defense budget, a doctrine for the armed forces, and the promotion of a strategic culture. Global political developments have since proved him right; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has left Germany and other countries “bare” in terms of security policy since 2022. However, the EU has still not implemented Macron's proposals and so the security of 450 million EU citizens could once again depend on a few thousand voters in US swing states in the November presidential election there.

If Macron is to be believed, however, there have been successes since 2017 that need to be built on after the forthcoming European Parliament elections this June. In terms of security policy, he included the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), which 13 EU member states have joined since 2017. The initiative only delivered a real operational impact in the form of the Takuba special forces mission, which fought terrorist groups in the Sahel from 2020 under French leadership. Berlin refused to take part in Takuba and it ended after a few months. The mission was also unable to prevent the EU from being ousted by Russia and other states in the Sahel and suffering a massive loss of influence. If Takuba is presented as a success, the EU’s Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is in bad shape.

Achievements to Be Built on in Future

By contrast, the initiative to strengthen European sovereignty in economic policy, which Macron predictably emphasized in his speech, was truly successful from a French perspective. The fact that the German government agreed to take on joint EU debt in 2020 in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is seen across party lines in Paris as the president's biggest European policy victory since 2017. Macron recalled that the then finance minister and current German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, even spoke of a “Hamiltonion moment” in an interview, alluding to a permanent joint EU budget. For Macron, this remains the prerequisite for genuine EU sovereignty and therefore a goal for the remaining three years of his presidency.

France is confident that it will be able to persuade the German government to take this step in the coming years. In his speech, Macron referred several times to a recently published report by former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, which contains proposals for strengthening the EU single market and for joint investments and is likely to influence the agenda of the next European Commission. 

While Macron was giving his Europe speech, journalists in Brussels were speculating about the French president's support for Mario Draghi, another former Italian head of government who has ambitions for the commission presidency. The current president, Ursula Von der Leyen, who is German, was not mentioned at all in the speech. Draghi will also present recommendations for increasing EU competitiveness—very much in line with Macron. 

Signals to the German Partner

Joint debt issuance will inevitably lead to renewed conflict between Germany and France in the coming months. Perhaps that is why Macron praised the relationship with Germany so frequently, emphasizing the value of the Aachen Treaty signed in 2019, cooperation during the pandemic and two joint arms projects that have recently made progress. 

Nevertheless, the French president could not resist a few digs. He emphasized the importance of nuclear power for the EU’s energy supply, praised French initiatives to form a “nuclear alliance” at the EU level, and called for the expansion of the “Europe of the atom.” More surprising than this old conflict was his allusion to the cannabis legalization introduced by Germany’s coalition government. He said some partners believed that the liberalization of drug policy was right, while he believed it to be wrong. Instead, the authority of the state should be strengthened. 

Fault Lines in the Franco-German Relationship

Beyond these policy issues, the major fault lines in the Franco-German relationship also became evident in the second Sorbonne speech: Macron repeatedly emphasized the danger of the EU becoming a “vassal” of the United States, losing its independent voice in the world, and degenerating into a “corner of the West.” Macron said the era of free trade and globalization was coming to an end and he referred to the triad of European dependencies often cited in France these days, most of which are particularly aimed at Berlin: Russian gas, Chinese export markets, and US security guarantees. Both the US and China were increasingly ignoring international rules that only the EU abided by, he claimed. The EU was acting “naively,” endangering the competitiveness of its industries and risking being responsible for its own failure in the process. 

The palpable fear of decline that ran through Macron’s speech did not only refer to the economy. The old fear of the Europeans, especially the French, of being culturally dominated by the US also flared up in many places. The multilingualism of Europe's youth, which Macron had invoked in 2017, is in a bad way. Despite Brexit, English dominates the EU institutions in Brussels. This is unlikely to change in the future, on the contrary. Thanks to Netflix and TikTok, young people all over Europe speak the same language. The EU, Macron said, barely controlled this digital space anymore and produced no content. Even worse than the withering of multilingualism was the fact that the EU no longer offered any positive narratives.

For observers of French politics, this clearly echoed Macron’s concerns about opinion polls ahead of the European elections. His party alliance is lagging far behind the far-right Rassemblement National party, whose 28-year-old leading candidate Jordan Bardella is particularly popular with first-time voters and on social media. Macron’s second Sorbonne speech was therefore also intended to boost the campaign of his party’s leading candidate in the European elections, Valérie Hayer. However, Macron confined himself to a few allusions, probably also because he is for the first time being perceived as a burden for his party’s chances in the election campaign.

Departure from Macron 

While preparing his speech, Macron must have thought back more than once to his first Sorbonne speech in 2017. The new speech heralds the beginning of his farewell as president of France. He has around three years left to turn the optimistic promises made at the beginning of his first term into a European policy legacy that will outlast his presidency. 

At the end of his speech, Macron quoted Hannah Arendt: “The only way to influence the future” was to “make promises and keep them.” Macron has promised a lot since 2017. No matter what else one might think of him: he is a visionary, the likes of whom has not been seen in the German chancellery for many years. Perhaps that is why the great European, the former German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, who died in December, wanted Macron to give a speech in recognition of his life's work. 

However, Macron still owes the EU the second part of Arendt's quote—the fulfillment of promises—in many areas. He knows that. And so, in parts of his speech, he came across as a driven man, one who is running out of time. This was also evident in another quote that Macron placed at the end of his speech, which raises the biggest question of all, the answer to which is anything but certain in France: Referring to Ernest Renan’s famous lecture, also delivered at the Sorbonne, in 1882, entitled: “What is a nation?” Macron called for the EU to ask itself the same essential question. If he succeeds in providing this impetus over the next three years, the EU would once again have something to offer, including to the young listeners of his speech. And Macron would have kept his big promise on European policy.

Jacob Ross is Research Fellow for France and Franco-German Relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin.

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