November 12, 2018
Does Macron really believe in his own 2019 battle plan?
His political fortunes may be sinking, his popularity taking hit after hit, his first strategy for 2019 may have had to be shredded, but Emmanuel Macron does not give up. The French president is clinging to his ambition to replicate at least to some extent in the European parliamentary elections in 2019 his triumph at the French parliamentary elections of 2017. Macron’s stated aim remains not just to forge a new group federating his MEPs from La République en Marche with ALDE’s liberal MEPs, but to persuade freshly elected europhile MEPs from other political groups - ranging from the Greens to the EPP - to join forces with the new centrist-liberal block he wants to build. As the FT reported, that much became clear once again during a meeting of 1.200 ALDE members in Madrid, which a senior representative from En Marche was invited to address.
As l’Opinion reports from Paris, Macron is currently repackaging his electoral strategy to de-emphasise the initial leitmotiv of building a united European anti-populist front. Instead, the new focus is on Europe’s sovereignty, and the strengthening of the EU’s capacity to protect its citizens from external aggression or unpleasantness. His advisers rightly point out that this new leitmotiv for 2019 is in fact one Macron had repeatedly made use of during his own presidential campaign - and as far as that goes, there is indeed a degree of consistency. Building a protective Europe is an ancient trope of France’s European policy debate. Macron has both modernised and sharpened this making it part of his grand constitutional and practical European project: the construction of a sovereign EU complete with its own army and other instruments of sovereignty.
But we cannot fail to find that Macron’s rebranding of his strategy is also the acknowledgement of both a miscalculation and a failure. Macron and his advisers had done their initial political computations without paying proper heed to the fact that, for instance, Germany’s MEPs are and always were decidedly unlikely to desert their own political grouping for some French-led merry band of Macronistas augmented by sundry friends and liberal allies. There was and is a danger that Macron’s future MEPs will simply fail to act strongly enough as a magnet for other MEPs beyond the ALDE group. By letting it be said that the new group will be fully conceived only after the elections, Macron is conveniently kicking that particular ball into the long grass on the other side of the elections.
A further awkwardness that would have resulted from Macron’s initial strategy of emphasising progressive European values is that it would have put him on a head-on collision course with Angela Merkel’s EPP. Under the Spitzenkandidat leadership of Manfred Weber, the EPP will continue to embrace Viktor Orbán rather than freeze him out. But it may also have been that another, much more domestic, factor has helped persuade Macron to change course. Recent polls showing that Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National might outperform the En Marche coalition in the 2019 European vote have set alarm bells ringing. Emphasising protection rather than progressivism carries less of a risk of losing voters to the far right.
Is Macron then really hoping to detach a few Greens, Socialists, and Christian Democrats from their groups, come May or June next year? Whatever the answer, we suspect that he has to continue to let those who speak for him pretend that he does. For one, he has to go into the European electoral battle with the attitude of a future winner, a man who can transform the power play in the next EP to his own advantage rather than meekly seeking a place to fit in.
But, more importantly, saying that he wants to build a new EP coalition of well-intentioned MEPs from the Greens to moderate conservatives achieves two vital aims. It makes it easier for Macron to cast a wider net at home, wooing French voters from all across the non-extreme spectrum. And it shields Macron’s candidates from the politically dangerous perspective of an exclusive loving embrace with the ALDE liberals. Only very brave politicians in France have dared to claim the liberal label fully as theirs, and most of them have paid for such courage with their political lives.