Macron’s na­tion­al­ism plea may go un­heeded

Once pop­u­lar French leader in­creas­ingly iso­lated in pop­ulist Eu­rope.

Bangkok Post - - SUNDAY FORUM - By Alissa J Ru­bin

All week Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron toured France’s World War I mem­ory trail. He vis­ited the killing fields of Ver­dun, the vast os­suary at Douau­mont and the mon­u­ment to heroic African sol­diers at Reims. Each stop made the same solemn point: Na­tion­al­ism kills.

It is a mes­sage Mr Macron hopes will not be lost on the dozens of world lead­ers who will de­scend on France this week­end to com­mem­o­rate the 1918 Armistice. But it is not clear any­one is lis­ten­ing. If any­thing, the care­fully or­ches­trated cen­ten­nial that Mr Macron wanted to use for boost­ing his im­age at home and his am­bi­tions for Eu­rope only seems cer­tain to un­der­score his iso­la­tion, both at home and abroad.

The part­ner he had hoped to have in re­al­is­ing his am­bi­tion for “more Eu­rope” — Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel — is on her way out. The avidly na­tivist eastern Euro­peans see him as the sym­bol of ev­ery­thing that is wrong with the Eu­ro­pean Union. He ex­tended a hand time and again to Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump only to see it slapped away; in the last few months, Mr Macron has in­creas­ingly been mark­ing his dis­tance from the US pres­i­dent.

All that has left Mr Macron as per­haps the lone leader de­fend­ing lib­eral val­ues and Eu­ro­pean gov­er­nance, and tak­ing a mod­er­ate stance to­ward im­mi­grants against flag-wav­ing pop­ulists. But the heir-ap­par­ent to lead Eu­rope as Ms Merkel ex­its is po­lit­i­cally weak at home, still in­ex­pe­ri­enced as a politi­cian, nearly out­num­bered by pop­ulist lead­ers whose ranks are grow­ing quickly on the Con­ti­nent and lacks a part­ner on the world stage.

Some of this iso­la­tion, no doubt, stems from gen­uine con­vic­tion in the face of coun­ter­vail­ing po­lit­i­cal winds. The Eu­rope that Macron looks to lead is very dif­fer­ent from the one where Ms Merkel rose to power. When in 2005 she be­came chan­cel­lor, and the leader of Eu­rope by dint of her run­ning its wealth­i­est coun­try, other na­tions were still clam­or­ing to join the Eu­ro­pean Union. The great im­mi­gra­tion waves from the Mid­dle East and sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa which have so riven the con­ti­nent po­lit­i­cally only started in 2011 and did not reach deeply di­vi­sive lev­els un­til 2014.

It’s a dif­fer­ent sit­u­a­tion for Mr Macron, elected in 2017. “It’s ab­so­lutely clear that he’s pretty iso­lated, be­cause he rep­re­sents the idea of a world that’s open — mul­ti­lat­er­al­ism, de­fend­ing lib­eral so­ci­ety,” said Ni­co­las Ten­zer, an an­a­lyst who teaches at Sciences Po, one of France’s top aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions. From Macron’s point of view, “you’ve got to reaf­firm th­ese prin­ci­ples,” he said.

But some of Mr Macron’s iso­la­tion is also a func­tion of his favoured self-im­age as a soli­tary war­rior, cre­at­ing a stark choice be­tween him­self and the French far right for next May’s elec­tions for the Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment, which are shap­ing up as a bat­tle be­tween the forces of in­te­gra­tion and frag­men­ta­tion on the Con­ti­nent.

Even at home, Mr Macron has some per­suad­ing to do. This week, for the first time in the race, a poll showed the pres­i­dent’s po­lit­i­cal move­ment, La République en Marche, or Repub­lic on the Move, fall­ing slightly be­hind the anti-Eu­rope, far-right Rassem­ble­ment Na­tional, formerly known as the Na­tional Front, in the race for Eu­ro­pean Par­lia­ment seats.

Sev­eral an­a­lysts see a di­rect link be­tween the in­creas­ing dis­af­fec­tion of French cit­i­zens with their leader, and his iso­la­tion in the world. Un­like Ms Merkel, who for most of her term was quite pop­u­lar and at times even beloved at home, Mr Macron’s youth­ful ap­peal waned as he pushed through one re­form af­ter an­other, which have yet to yield much eco­nomic improve­ment for those peo­ple who fear be­ing left be­hind.

“He has been in­sen­si­tive to the kinds of pop­u­lar con­cerns that make peo­ple feel they are drown­ing,” said Pas­cal Per­rineau, a po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence pro­fes­sor at Sciences Po.

Marielle de Sarnez, a Macron ally and chair­woman of the French Par­lia­ment’s for­eign af­fairs com­mit­tee, said the French pres­i­dent was not iso­lated, but that Eu­rope’s pop­ulists were “re­spond­ing to the peo­ple’s fears, that we and Pres­i­dent Macron have to take into ac­count.”

“It is not a lost fight,” she added. ‘‘But it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to take into ac­count the fears of the peo­ple and iden­tify, for in­stance, the fron­tiers. And he’s got a very im­por­tant role in that. The Eu­ro­pean peo­ples, it is up to us to pull them to­gether.”

But Mr Macron him­self has be­come a di­vi­sive fig­ure for many in France who fear a widen­ing gap be­tween the haves and havenots, and be­tween tra­di­tion and change. Nev­er­the­less, in re­cent speeches and in­ter­views, Mr Macron has pre­sented him­self as the best al­ter­na­tive for Eu­rope’s fu­ture as he has warned about the dan­gers of the in­creas­ingly loud siren song of na­tion­al­ism.

“I’m struck by the re­sem­blance be­tween the mo­ment we’re now liv­ing, and the pe­riod be­tween the world wars,” Mr Macron told the news­pa­per Ouest-France last week in a com­par­i­son that sparked an­guished com­men­tary.

Eu­rope was caught be­tween “dis­mem­ber­ment by the lep­rosy of na­tion­al­ism, and be­ing pushed around by out­side pow­ers,” he said. Na­tion­al­ism “is ris­ing, the na­tion­al­ism that de­mands the clos­ing of fron­tiers, which preaches re­jec­tion of the other. It is play­ing on fears, ev­ery­where,” he said. Eu­rope’s post­war peace and pros­per­ity was merely “a golden paren­the­sis in our his­tory,” he said.

But some say those char­ac­ter­i­sa­tions miss the point of con­tem­po­rary Eu­rope’s griev­ances, which are less mil­i­taris­tic than be­fore the world wars and more rooted in fear of how im­mi­gra­tion is chang­ing so­ci­eties. “Macron wants to po­larise the de­bate,” said Do­minique Reynié, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at Sciences Po and a spe­cial­ist in pop­ulism. “How can you imag­ine that Eu­rope is in the 1930s now?” he said. “Coun­tries like Hun­gary are dis­ap­pear­ing de­mo­graph­i­cally. No, on ques­tions like im­mi­gra­tion, the Euro­peans are sim­ply de­mand­ing more pro­tec­tion.”

But if Mr Macron is to truly take on the role as the pre­mier de­fender of West­ern lib­eral val­ues, it be­comes ever more in­cum­bent on him to make an ef­fort to bring his op­po­nents into his camp even as he makes clear where his pri­or­i­ties dif­fer.

Ms Merkel never al­lowed her­self to drama­tise dif­fer­ences. Although she was un­spar­ing in her crit­i­cisms of Spain, Italy and Greece, she sought to ne­go­ti­ate with her op­po­nents and those who re­sented her poli­cies, in­clud­ing Alexis Tsipras, the Greek leader. Mr Macron, in con­trast, rel­ishes his chances to be tough and con­fronta­tional with those he per­ceives as an­tag­o­nis­tic.

He has openly sparred with the Hun­gar­ian leader, Vik­tor Or­ban, as well as Italy’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Mat­teo Salvini. And his speech at the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly in Septem­ber, closely fol­low­ing Mr Trump’s, sounded like a di­rect re­buke of the US pres­i­dent’s na­tion­al­ism.

In Septem­ber, af­ter Mr Or­ban placed Mr Macron “at the head of those forces up­hold­ing im­mi­gra­tion” Mr Macron shot back: “If they want to see me, per­son­ally, as their prin­ci­pal op­po­nent, they are ab­so­lutely right.”

“He is sur­pris­ingly iso­lated in Eu­rope, he’s not talk­ing to Hun­gary and Poland, he’s try­ing to iso­late them and re­in­forc­ing the idea that the French do not like the Cen­tral Euro­peans,” said Charles Grant, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Eu­ro­pean Re­form in Lon­don.

The iso­la­tion from those coun­tries, cou­pled with Italy’s lat­est turn to pop­ulism, leaves France with few, if any, pow­er­ful al­lies. Ger­many is work­ing out its postMerkel po­lit­i­cal stance but is mov­ing in a more con­ser­va­tive di­rec­tion, at least on the piv­otal is­sue of im­mi­gra­tion, and Bri­tain is leav­ing the Eu­ro­pean Union al­to­gether.

Mr Macron has been think­ing about th­ese di­vi­sions for some months and ap­pears to have cal­cu­lated they will work to his po­lit­i­cal ad­van­tage. Last sum­mer he de­scribed “the real fron­tier” in the Eu­ro­pean Union as the one be­tween the pro­gres­sives and the na­tion­al­ists.

Mr Macron is per­haps the lone leader de­fend­ing lib­eral val­ues and Eu­ro­pean gov­er­nance.

LOOK­ING ISO­LATED: French Pres­i­dent Em­manuel Macron ad­dresses the UN Gen­eral Assem­bly at UN head­quar­ters in New York in Septem­ber. In the run-up to com­mem­o­ra­tions of the 1918 armistice that ended World War I, Mr Macron has been tour­ing grave­yards and mon­u­ments with a pointed mes­sage: na­tion­al­ism kills.

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