On April 22, Brookings’s Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) convened a webinar as part of the Brookings-Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative to launch Nonresident Senior Fellow William Drozdiak’s new book “The Last President of Europe: Emmanuel Macron’s Race to Revive France and Save the World.” Senior Fellow Fiona Hill moderated the conversation, with Drozdiak, Visiting Fellow Célia Belin, Visiting Fellow Giovanna De Maio, and Senior Fellow Constanze Stelzenmüller as discussants.
In opening remarks, CUSE Director and Senior Fellow Thomas Wright noted that Drozdiak’s privileged access to Macron made for a “truly intimate portrait” of the French president. Drozdiak highlighted the precocious French president’s threefold ambition to “modernize France, revitalize Europe, and reshape the world order.” In his quest to modernize France, Macron sought to push through sweeping domestic reforms. Their magnitude, however, was quickly stymied by the Yellow Vests protest movement, which erupted in November 2018. According to Drozdiak, the movement’s ferocity stunned Macron, pushing him into such a depression that he “isolated himself in the Élysée.”
Belin agreed, emphasizing three factors that have hindered Macron from carrying out his ambitions. First, Macron has sought to act “presidentially” — most recently by declaring “war” against the coronavirus, a posture that has backfired as many perceive him as out-of-touch. Second, the French public lacks trust in the Élysée, a trend that has only intensified amid the pandemic. Third, Belin continued, Macron has seized on the crisis — calling it a “moment of truth” for the EU – to put forth a multitude of policy proposals.
At the European level, Macron’s efforts to build a united front against populists and reinvigorate the EU — namely through a “French-German tandem” with Chancellor Angela Merkel — have also floundered and left him isolated. As Stelzenmüller stressed, the often-tense relationship between Macron and Merkel is emblematic of historical disparities between the two neighbors. German chancellors have traditionally acted “as balancers between the different parts of Europe,” she said, while Macron has not shied away from controversial stances that put him at odds with Berlin (most recently on the issue of Eurobonds to support the post-COVID-19 economic recovery).
Clashes between Euroskeptic populists and committed Europeanists have also thwarted Macron’s vision for the EU, according to Drozdiak. Nationalist former Italian Minister of the Interior Matteo Salvini and French far-right leader Marine Le Pen have had a rapprochement, as De Maio explained, and the populist Five Star Movement has demonstrated support for the anti-Macron Yellow Vests in France. On COVID-19 recovery, however, De Maio noted that Italy and France have found “a common position,” suggesting that Macron can still find European allies with whom to build his vision for Europe.
Lastly, Macron seeks to make the EU competitive amid renewed great power rivalry. The French president confided to Drozdiak in September 2019 that he felt Europe was “not ready for the next big crisis” unless the 27 member states mobilized and found “a way to coalesce behind his strategic vision.” For Macron, it has always been “a race against time.”
Indeed, COVID-19 does in fact appear to be the “first big crisis in a post-American world,” as one audience member asked the panel, with Macron playing a pivotal role in managing a global response. Whether the crisis will in fact push the EU to the breaking point remains to be seen. But as Drozdiak argued, how Macron performs in the coming days, weeks, and months, will without a doubt be the key to his presidency.