PARIS – French President Emmanuel Macron looks like the last, best hope to salvage a unified Europe, as Britain drifts away and Germany bogs down.
The role of knight in shining armor is one Macron relishes, whether he’s standing up to U.S. President Donald Trump on climate change, mediating in Mideast crises or crusading to make Paris the world’s newest financial capital.
Yet pitfalls await.
The inexperienced 39-year-old must surmount many hurdles to transform France into the kind of superpower economy that could drive the rest of Europe toward prosperity.
And instead of leaving Macron alone in the spotlight as Europe’s superstar, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s troubles in forming a coalition at home may in fact drag him down with her.
“Macron can only really lead Europe if he is in full cooperation with Germany,” said Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform. “France needs an engaged, cooperative Germany.”
A divided, inward-looking Germany hobbles Macron’s ambitious hopes of revitalizing the European Union and its shared currency through things like a banking union and harmonizing taxes. These ideas were always a hard sell in Germany, and Merkel is now too weakened to push them through.
The mood was somber in Macron’s office the morning after Merkel’s failure to form a coalition Sunday night. France wants “its principal partner to be stable and strong,” a presidential official said.
But Macron isn’t giving up, and instead sees Merkel’s difficulties as “reinforcing” the need for France to take initiatives to strengthen the EU, the official said.
In a Europe looking for direction, many see Macron as a much-needed captain.
He’s energetic, telegenic and forward-looking. He has a big head and big ideas, and doesn’t apologize or flinch when critics target his “Jupiter-like” tendencies.
In just six months in power, he’s secured support for a more robust European defense operation and rules cracking down on cheap labor, and pushed multinationals to pay more taxes. At European summits, he commands attention, and other leaders seek audiences with him – rivals and supporters alike.
“Along with Merkel, they are the only two leaders of any real stature in Europe at present,” notably with Britain, Italy and Spain mired in other troubles, Tilford said.
Macron also vaunts French grandeur – hosting Vladimir Putin in Versailles and inviting Trump to dine in the Eiffel Tower. And Macron’s administration has openly lobbied to leech financial activity away from London when Britain quits the EU.
Macron cried victory when the EU voted Monday to move the European Banking Authority from Britain to Paris. “It’s the recognition of France’s attractiveness and commitment to Europe,” he tweeted.
It was based on luck as much as anything – Paris beat Dublin based on a paper draw from a bowl to break their tie. But it was a clear boost to Macron’s efforts to make Paris into a post-Brexit financial capital. It also fits his vision for a more simplified, concentrated EU, since Paris already hosts the European Securities and Markets Authority.
Foreign companies welcomed the move, even if it remains to be seen which European city – if any – is first in line to replace the City of London as the continent’s financial hub.
Macron’s status as leader of a united Europe will depend heavily on whether France’s economic recovery picks up speed and joblessness goes down at last. He’s just beginning to dismantle labor laws that have long scared investors away – and is already angering much of the French electorate in the process.
But Macron’s success also depends heavily on Germany.
In recent years, “the German engine was spinning at full speed while the French engine was practically at a halt. Now, there is uncertainty about the German engine just at the moment when the French engine is ignited again with President Macron,” European Parliament member Alain Lamassoure said on Europe-1 radio.
“It is in all of Europe’s interest that Germany comes out of this political crisis as soon as possible.”
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