Nov 26, 2020

Macron’s European Identity Politics

The French president wants Europeans to discover their collective identity. However, his particular concept of "Europeanness" risks alienating other EU member states and could lead to misunderstandings.

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron at the Arc de Triomphe
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He did it again. French President Emmanuel Macron gave another of his sweeping interviews. All broad strokes and Greek mythological references, the interview is reminiscent of the oral exams France’s ambitious 20-somethings have to pass to enter one of the Grandes Écoles.

And maybe this was no coincidence. Macron gave the interview to Le Grand Continent. The online magazine was launched in 2019 by students of the École normale supérieure; Macron twice failed to pass the entrance exam for the graduate school that breeds France’s academic elite.

But if the president never managed to penetrate the walls of this particular famous white tower, his European ambition certainly did. Le Grand Continent’s wants  to “think Europe at the right scale” and shake up the published policy debates on Europe that often reflect national positions. The magazine is testimony to how members of France’s young and aspiring generation put Europe at the heart of their thinking about the world. In a country where older generations of academics were often happy to delve into comfortable Franco-centrism, that is excellent news.

Unthought Thoughts

Nonetheless, the magazine is a pure product of French culture: avowedly intellectual, essayistic, cross-disciplinary, and full of fancy maps. In Paris, one loves to debate “geopolitics” while looking at a map. In Berlin, one prefers to discuss “foreign policy” while eyeballing polls.

But if Le Grand Continent is worth following, it is because it is right up President Macron’s street. The president doesn’t think of debate on Europe purely as a means to weigh solutions to concrete policy problems.

In his early 20s, Macron worked as a research assistant to the late philosopher Paul Ricœur, editing one of his last major books. Ricœur is well-known for his notion of narrative identity: he believes identity arises from performative acts, such as narration and self-articulation. Phew… this may sound like a ton of philosophical wishy-washiness.

But it’s important to understand Macron’s philosophical underpinnings, as they explain why he regularly engages in these public thinking exercises. The president believes that for Europe to rise to its potential, it is necessary to “conceive and name” European identity. Europeans thus need to take on the task of articulating themselves and thinking those “unthought thoughts” about the EU’s raison d’être.

The president says: “There is ideological work to be done, and it is urgent.” An ideology for Europe? When did a Western head of state last speak of “ideology” in a positive sense or as a mission to pursue? I am probably too young to know the answer to that question.

What You Want

Macron seems to pursue a two-pronged approach to his European identity-building project. One is by getting Europeans to define what they want to be. The other is by telling a story of who Europeans are.

The “European sovereignty” paradigm is Macron’s attempt at the first method. Paris does not believe for a second that it can do without the United States today. France’s military is already overburdened with its operations, stretching from the Baltics via the Champs-Élysées to Mali.

So, when German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer writes in an op-ed: “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider,” this is received in France as disingenuous. AKK answered a “want” question with a “can” argument.

If Macron felt compelled to react to AKK’s statement, it is precisely because he wants Europeans to have illusions. He wants them to project themselves into the future. Agreeing on collective goals—regardless of their attainability in the short or medium-term—is what political communities do after all. It is what gives them a sense of purpose and identity.

What You Are

AKK’s refusal to engage is unfortunate. All the more so because the second leg in Macron’s approach to European identity building—defining what Europe is and what it is not—is a slippery slope.

Macron’s own proposals for what it means to be European are distinctly… well, French. In the interview he appeals to this sort of fuzzy feeling of Europeanness we experience when we set foot on another continent. “There is something that unites us” beyond geography and interests, Macron says. And he is especially keen to mark the differences to the US: “Our values are not quite the same. We have an attachment to social democracy, to more equality … I also believe that culture is more important here, much more.” 

This is all well and good. But then Macron moves on to the old trick of trying to define Europe by stating who it is not and whom it should fight: Islamic fundamentalists, conservatives trying to undo the societal heritage of 1968, and relativists. Macron sees the achievements of the Enlightenment as under threat: from rising authoritarian powers abroad, and from nationalists and political Islam at home. This narrative of an offensive struggle for the Enlightenment is one that France feels comfortable with.

But Macron’s increasing tendency to view Europe as having to engage in a sort of civilizational fight for the Enlightenment will hardly serve to rally Europeans around him. For Macron, things are clear: Turkey is not part of Europe. Russia potentially is. There is no “clash of civilizations,” Macron says—but yes, Europe has “Judeo-Christian roots.”

Not all Europeans adhere to this view. Many feel uncomfortable with the civilizational undertones of, for example, Macron’s rhetoric in his stand-off with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey. Practicing European identity politics on the basis of opposition to others is a dangerous route to take: It is exclusive, vague, and easily lends itself to misunderstandings.

Europe as an Idea

Yes, Macron is right when he says that European leaders should treat the EU as a political project based on ideas, and not just a policy machine. But Europe’s identity politics should be forward looking.

For this, Germany’s politicians should have the courage to debate what the country wants the EU to be and also what it wants the EU to be able to do. Because ultimately, there is only so much that students and philosophers can do.

Joseph de Weck is a journalist and historian based in Paris. He consults on geopolitical and macroeconomic risk and writes the monthly Pariscope column for INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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