Macron’s early ac­tions fa­vor France, not Europe

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD - BY JAMES MCAULEY james.mcauley@wash­ Ste­fano Pe­trelli con­trib­uted to this re­port.

paris — In May, Em­manuel Macron’s vic­tory over his op­po­nent, the far-right pop­ulist Ma­rine Le Pen, was seen as a win for the Euro­pean Union or, as Macron put it, a “Europe that pro­tects.”

But three months later, many across the con­ti­nent have be­gun won­der­ing whether Macron re­ally is the drum ma­jor for Euro­pean unity he says he is or whether he will be­come another French pres­i­dent out to de­fend national in­ter­ests above all else.

Nowhere is this truer than in Italy, France’s south­ern neigh­bor, where lead­ers have be­gun to feel slighted by the new pres­i­dent’s bid to launch him­self and his coun­try as ma­jor play­ers on the world stage.

“Pre­cisely be­cause the French elec­tion de­vel­oped the way it did — with the ‘Euro­pean leader’ on one side vs. the ex­treme na­tion­al­ist right wing on the other — there was a fun­da­men­tal mis­un­der­stand­ing of who Macron was and what he rep­re­sented,” said Nathalie Tocci, di­rec­tor of the Rome-based In­sti­tute for International Af­fairs and a spe­cial ad­viser to E.U. for­eign pol­icy chief Federica Mogherini.

“Be­cause it was such an ex­treme pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, we kind of for­got at the end of the day that it was also a national elec­tion,” Tocci said.

Re­cently, Macron and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have pur­sued mul­ti­ple ini­tia­tives that have ran­kled his Ital­ian coun­ter­parts, who have said they were de­lib­er­ately ex­cluded from dis­cus­sions that di­rectly con­cern their in­ter­ests.

These per­ceived slights have ranged from the spe­cific to the gen­eral, from in­fight­ing over a Lyon-Turin rail­way to more sub­stan­tive is­sues such as Europe’s mi­gra­tion cri­sis and Mid­dle East for­eign pol­icy.

In Rome, there is now the per­cep­tion that Macron may be less of a team player than he was ini­tially con­sid­ered.

This sense first emerged in the af­ter­math of Macron’s re­cent Libya sum­mit, dur­ing which the new pres­i­dent in­vited the coun­try’s two ri­val lead­ers — the U.N.-backed prime min­is­ter, Fayez al-Sar­raj, and the mil­i­tary strong­man Khal­ifa Haf­tar — to a chateau out­side Paris to dis­cuss a cease-fire agree­ment.

Con­spic­u­ously ab­sent was an Ital­ian del­e­ga­tion, de­spite the re­al­ity that, as Tocci put it, Italy is the “Euro­pean mem­ber state that has the most gran­u­lar un­der­stand­ing of the sit­u­a­tion on the ground.”

At stake in par­tic­u­lar was the is­sue of mi­gra­tion. Italy now re­ceives the bulk of Europe’s in­com­ing mi­grants, with many ar­riv­ing across the Mediter­ranean di­rectly from Libya.

So far in 2017, Italy has re­ceived about 95,000 along this route, prompt­ing the Ital­ian gov­ern­ment to pe­ti­tion the Euro­pean Union for as­sis­tance in han­dling the new asy­lum seek­ers.

“There is the very strong im­pres­sion in Rome of hav­ing been left alone with the mi­grant ques­tion,” said Thomas Go­mart, di­rec­tor of the French In­sti­tute for International Re­la­tions, in an in­ter­view.

Last month, France — along with Ger­many — re­luc­tantly promised to help in re­lo­cat­ing mi­grants more quickly, al­though crit­ics say de­tails of that plan re­main vague and that lit­tle ac­tion has been taken since.

In any case, af­ter his meet­ing with the two Libyan lead­ers, Macron — with­out Ital­ian in­put — an­nounced plans to open “hot spots” in Libya later this sum­mer, which would the­o­ret­i­cally curb the flow into Europe.

For Go­mart, how­ever, any French ac­tion on mi­grants can­not be sep­a­rated from the re­al­ity that France, when com­pared with Ger­many and Italy, has not taken any­where near the same pro­por­tions of asy­lum seek­ers.

“This for me is the big­gest cause of the ten­sions that have ma­te­ri­al­ized — and it’s a barom­e­ter of Euro­pean sol­i­dar­ity,” he said.

Then came a French move that, for many in Italy, was even more sur­pris­ing.

Be­fore an Ital­ian firm, Fin­cantieri, could close on the pur­chase of France’s largest ship­yard, known as STX, Macron — who had cam­paigned on prom­ises of eas­ing gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tions and even of at­tract­ing for­eign in­vest­ment — tem­po­rar­ily na­tion­al­ized the fa­cil­ity and pre­vented the sale, in an ef­fort to pro­tect French jobs.

To as­suage the im­me­di­ate Ital­ian ac­cu­sa­tions of eco­nomic pro­tec­tion­ism that fol­lowed, Macron called Ital­ian Prime Min­is­ter Paolo Gen­tiloni, whose of­fice later told re­porters that the con­ver­sa­tion was “friendly.” He then dis­patched Bruno Le Maire, France’s econ­omy min­is­ter, to Rome on Tues­day to meet with his Ital­ian coun­ter­part.

French of­fi­cials were quick to dis­miss any no­tion of soured re­la­tions with Italy.

“We will con­tinue to ex­change with our Ital­ian part­ner at all lev­els on Libya,” said a French diplo­matic of­fi­cial.

But the con­sen­sus in Italy was dif­fer­ent. As Ital­ian econ­omy min­is­ter Pier Carlo Padoan told re­porters af­ter the Tues­day meet­ing: “Dur­ing our con­ver­sa­tion with min­is­ter Le Maire, we’ve first of all as­cer­tained that be­tween Italy and France there are still un­re­solved dif­fer­ences.”

For­eign pol­icy an­a­lysts see Macron’s ac­tions on Italy as ev­i­dence that his im­age as a dogged ad­vo­cate of Euro­pean in­te­gra­tion could soon change.

Said Pierre Vi­mont, a for­mer French am­bas­sador to the United States and the E.U.: “At the end of the day, if you look at the way Euro­peans are watch­ing Macron, one can­not help but no­tice that for many of our Euro­pean coun­ter­parts, there is the im­pres­sion that this pres­i­dent is very French and merely pro­mot­ing French in­ter­ests.”

“Be­cause it was such an ex­treme pres­i­den­tial elec­tion, we kind of for­got at the end of the day that it was also a national elec­tion.” Nathalie Tocci, di­rec­tor of Rome-based In­sti­tute for International Af­fairs


French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron, right, ar­rives last month for a meet­ing with Gen­eral Khal­ifa Haf­tar, head of the Libyan National Army, for talks over a po­lit­i­cal deal to help end Libya’s cri­sis.

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