As the first round of the French presidential elections approaches, a renewed international relevance is the ace up Emmanuel Macron’s sleeve. Provided that he wins both rounds — something he seems well-poised to do — and that he keeps his comfortable majority at the National Assembly, he might successfully challenge Germany’s dominance in Europe.
French longing for grandeur
Addressing the Davos Economic Forum in early 2018, Macron reassured the assembled élites that “France is back”. This, however, seemed unusual as few in the audience had noticed France’s absence in the first place. As a matter of fact, Macron’s socialist predecessor, Francois Hollande, enjoyed a higher stature outside of France than within it, with achievements including the swift halting of the 2013 armed insurrection in Mali and the signing of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement.
However, Macron was actually addressing his fellow citizens back in France. When Hollande chose not to seek re-election in 2017, he did so with historically poor domestic ratings. French voters saw him as a pigmy on the world stage – even more so in Europe given Germany’s overwhelming dominance over the bloc under Chancellor Angela Merkel.
As Charles de Gaulle put it following his return to power in 1958: “When one no longer has power, one must aim for greatness, for without it one is nothing”. By 2017, France longed for grandeur when it elected Macron. Hollande, for all his technical successes, had fallen short.
“France is back” in Europe and beyond
Five years later, President Macron can claim to be matching such ambition. In Europe, Germany’s 30-year upper hand of the Franco-German tandem quickly faded and gave way to a more balanced relation between Macron and Merkel. In September 2017, he delivered a speech at Sorbonne University about the future of Europe, waiting in vain for Berlin’s reaction. In 2019, the signing of the bilateral Aachen Treaty demonstrated unity with great pomp and circumstance. One year later, the COVID-19 pandemic provided Macron with the opportunity to reintroduce an old French ideal, which Nikolas Sarkozy — Merkel’s first counterpart — had failed to achieve even at the height of the Eurozone crisis: common European debt.
France was not only back, but it was setting the pace. Olaf Scholz might have won the federal election last year by presenting himself as Merkel’s natural successor, but his first impressions in Brussels, including his vacillation over nuclear energy (the “taxonomy affair”), the refusal to suspend the Nord Stream II pipeline, and intense diplomatic efforts to prevent the Russian aggression of Ukraine, paint another picture. They all showed a Chancellor who is still busy consolidating his power at home within a three-way coalition.Macron, for his part, is not hesitating to fill the void, exploiting two underlying advantages in the Franco-German relationship: the consensus enjoyed at home and a favourable agenda abroad.
Domestic power strengthened Macron’s international posture
Early in his presidency, Macron prioritized the consolidation of his domestic power. His absolute majority in the National Assembly guaranteed him an easy ride against the backdrop of a Constitution designed for a strong President. Macron could thus heavily exert his control over the vast French bureaucracy and in his response to the first serious challenge to his presidency, the yellow-vest movement. Macron took advantage of a suddenly united public opinion on the day that Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire to announce his plans to abolish the apex of the country’s administrative aristocracy, the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). The young President, énarque himself, was harnessing popular resentment against French élites and directing it towards the bureaucracy.
In September 2019, attentive observers caught a second glimpse of Macron’s domestic consolidation of power. After the yearly summer break, the President delivered the traditional address to the French ambassadors, outlining his foreign policy priorities for the coming year. Suddenly, Macron turned inwards. Using a kind of language associated with populist leaders, he told puzzled diplomats that “we too have a deep state” and that sometimes, presidential orders seemed to be defied by the administration. Apparently, Macron had doubts about his diplomats’ willingness to carry out his attempted rapprochement towards Vladimir Putin.
Today, the Elysée’s grip on the ministries is as tight as ever. Presidential cabinets and counsellors dictate Macron’s policies to the administrations almost on a daily basis. Even by the standards of the Fifth Republic, the concentration of power has been carried to new extremes. Of course, foreign and security policy are part of the President’s domaine réservée, but Macron soon demonstrated how willing he was to put this principle into action: shortly after his speech to the ambassadors, he called NATO “braindead” to the surprise of large parts of his administration as well as his allies, none more so than Germany.
The international agenda played into France’s hands
In 2020, after consolidating his domestic power, Macron addressed his international counterparts with renewed confidence. Fortune seems to favour the bold. The COVID-19 pandemic did two favours to the second half of Macron’s quinquennat: first, it afforded him a pretext for failing to complete his domestic reform agenda. His allies simply point to the pandemic when their candidate is being attacked – be it for the failure to reform the pension system, the exploding sovereign debt, or the increasing costs of living. Second, on the international stage, the pandemic-induced state of emergency and the related pressure to take swift decisions favour France’s presidential system over other countries, like Germany’s, where well-negotiated compromise is usually preferred over crisis responses.
As Merkel’s cautious legacy subsides, boldness will once again be rewarded. The economic fallout of the pandemic underlined the shakiness of the EU’s economic and financial system. Common debt and the recovery fund might be able to stop the immediate bleeding, but they are a sticky plaster, and a more radical approach is ripening. Moreover, Russia’s second invasion of Ukraine highlights further weaknesses left by Merkel’s European legacy: Germany’s dependence on Russian gas and oil has hindered the EU’s path towards energy sovereignty; millions of refugees serve as a reminder of the lack of a common migration policy; and the German armed forces are “strapped” in the face of Russian aggression.
“Zeitenwende” and the way forward
French reactions to the German Zeitenwende are telling. Scholz’s extra spending and willingness to strengthen European sovereignty are certainly welcome in France. Yet, some in Paris seem to fear that Berlin’s new tone, should it prove to be of substance, might put an abrupt end to the new French leadership, including in areas dominated by Paris long before Macron arrived: chiefly, European security and defence policy.
Macron is positioning himself well, meticulously careful not to offend the new German government. France’s presidency of the Council of the EU provides a perfect background for new proposals, which the German government is struggling to reject considering its past unwillingness to respond to Macron’s Sorbonne speech ideas, the obvious flaws of the current system, and the urgency of the current situation. If Scholz is moving, he is doing so along a track laid by the French.
 Michel Duclos: La France dans le bouleversement du monde, 26