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Macron has a lot to lose… but a whole continent to gain

Emmanuel Macron at a military ceremony at the Invalides in Paris, in November 2018 - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The French president is a politician like no other: neither from the left, nor the right; bold and decisive, yet the antithesis of a populist. And if he can win re-election next year he will shape not just the future of France, but of Europe. By ALASTAIR CAMPBELL 

The first time I met Emmanuel Macron, he was little known outside France, and though his intention to run for president was clear, he was fourth, perhaps fifth favourite to succeed. Yet, as he declared he was going to win, his eyes were ablaze with a self-confidence that went well beyond the formulaic optimism that all campaigners feign. This was not in any event an interview, but a private conversation, with at least a little room for the expression of doubt. There was none. Impressionnant, même passionnant.

I have met plenty of powerful people, plenty of ambitious people, plenty of clever people, plenty of confident people. But I don’t think I have ever met anyone with quite the self-confidence of Macron to match the ambition and the intelligence. Observing him ever since, I have always had that sense, that when he sets himself a difficult challenge, the chances are that he will meet it.

Among his current challenges, getting France through the pandemic before returning focus to domestic reform, then seeking re-election, with some – though not him – doubting he will make it through as one of the final two candidates in the second round next spring, and others – though not him – thinking if he faces a run-off against Marine Le Pen, he could lose.

His remarkable self-confidence was never more on display than when making that solitary walk towards cheering crowds, at his victory rally in the shadow of the Louvre in May 2017. Almost four minutes, arms by his side, dressed in his uniform dark suit and coat, white shirt, thin dark tie, barely a flicker of a smile until he reached the stage, the message of the image unmistakeable – solo, serious, a leader, a president, the man to get things done.

The choice of musical accompaniment to that long walk to power was instructive, and very Macron. As his excited supporters waved their tricolores, Macron had insisted on the European anthem, Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Again, a clear message – he may have been elected as president of France; but he fully intended to be a leader in Europe.

As Angela Merkel prepares to leave office after 16 years as German chancellor, most of them as indisputably Europe’s most powerful figure, Macron now sees the second-term possibilities of being not just a leader in Europe, but the leader of Europe.

Far better read than Boris Johnson, though less boastful about it, Macron is aware of the Friedrich Schiller poem on which Beethoven’s Ode to Joy was broadly based, and perhaps especially this verse:

Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen

Durch des Himmels prächt’gen Plan

Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn,

Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen.

Gladly, as his suns fly

through the heaven’s grand plan

Go on, brothers, your way,

Joyful, like a hero to victory.

He had certainly flown to an extraordinary victory, in just 13 months starting his En Marche party from scratch, extricating himself from president Francois Hollande’s government, becoming president himself – at 39 France’s youngest ever – then securing a majority for En Marche in the National Assembly. It is hard to overstate, in pure political terms, the scale of the achievement.

To some, self-confidence can appear as arrogance. As the hard grind of power took over from the musicality of that stunning campaign, arrogance is one of several negative labels that began to stick. Worse, ‘pour les riches’ stuck even more, and the gilets jaunes protest movement ensured he got a fairly early taste of the Gorbachev syndrome: seen around the world as a brilliant, modernising, breath of fresh air – whereas in his own country the shine started to fade.

Prior self-comparisons with Jupiter and Joan of Arc, which resonated positively when he was flying high, were now used against him. His time as a Rothschilds banker, once seen as a sign he understood the global economy, underlined attacks that he was of and for the elite. That famous election-night stroll was now seen as hubristic, including by some who had been in the crowd cheering. Hated on the left, hated on the right, his ratings suffered something of a spectacular fall.

It was that same self-confidence that gave him the idea for the solution – himself. He wrote a 2,300 word letter to the nation to launch a three-month long national debate, then went out to meet his critics, all over the country, taking the heat, hearing their anger, feeling their pain, talking to them for hours, trying to turn them around, with some success.

France is a notoriously difficult country to govern. All presidents since General de Gaulle are compared with the country’s wartime hero, invariably unfavourably. All presidents get elected on a promise of change, yet run into immediate political difficulties as soon as they bring forward the change on which they have been elected.

Macron scrapped the wealth tax, as promised, but it fuelled the ‘pour les riches’ charge. He introduced labour reforms, as promised, which angered many of the unions. He introduced pensions reforms, as promised, but they ran into difficulties, and then abeyance as the pandemic arrived and consumed so much time and attention.

When his prime minister Édouard Philippe announced a six-month delay for an unpopular petrol tax inherited from Hollande’s term, Macron went further a day later, and scrapped it entirely. At the height of the gilets jaunes protests, his ratings fell into the 20s. As he faced the heat, they steadied, then began to rise again – currently in the 40s – but he knows the electoral battlefield will be a far, far tougher place in 2022 than 2017.

Not long ago we discussed the frame for New Labour’s second term election of 2001 – ‘lots done, lots to do, lots to lose,’ and partly because of the vehemence of attacks against him as being ‘pour les riches,’ he is well placed to use lesser known parts of his ‘lots done’ record to show a counter narrative about his first term but, more importantly, to set out ‘lots to do’ social reform plans aimed at improving the lives and life chances of the majority.

Though the wealth tax is the one that got the attention, he has also cut production taxes, income tax is lower for millions, housing tax has been abolished for 80% of French people… and the ‘quoiqu’il en coûte’ (‘whatever it costs’) approach to Covid has thus far protected many jobs. On the social front, smaller class sizes for some age groups, the doubling of paternity leave, new measures on alimony… and on the green agenda, though he lost a minister over the pace of reform, his Citizens’ Convention on the Climate gives him the chance to put ecology at the heart of his second term agenda, but as an economic asset rather than peril.

It helps too, though Macron gets a lot of negative press commentary, that most of the French media, as they near elections, tend to avoid the ‘kill’ mode of much of ours. Of course that helps his opponents too, but it helps the debate overall. In general, the French take their politics fairly seriously.

Le Pen remains the main threat. Current polling suggests she is into the 40s in the event of a second round run-off, well above the 33% she gained in 2017. Her strategy seems to be to stay fairly low profile, organise on the ground, continue to shed the more extreme elements of her past agenda, be a populist but mainstream candidate of the right, absorb anti-Macron sentiment wherever she can find it, left and right.

With Brexit widely seen in France as a disaster for the UK – not least by its president – she has quietly dropped Frexit from her armoury. The news that EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier may be entering the fray is likely to have alarmed her and Macron in equal measure.

Macron has undoubtedly lost support on the left with what many saw as a deliberate pitch to the right, for example in the law restricting the publication of videos of on-duty police officers, or the recently passed bill aimed against ‘Islamist separatism,’ attacked by some as Islamophobic, pure politics to play to possible Le Pen supporters. But as the wheel of the electoral cycle turns he is moving back to the strategic pitch that served him so well before, neither left nor right, big, bold positions, pragmatic but anti-populist. Hence his determination, for example, to put France at the head of calls for the richer countries to help the poorer countries get vaccinated against Covid.

Up to the point of the UK pulling ahead of most countries on vaccination, Macron and Merkel were viewed as having handled the crisis far better than Boris Johnson, in Macron’s case perhaps a consequence of a work ethic one of his advisers describes as “maniacal”.

National pride, in the land where Louis Pasteur was born and Marie Curie naturalised, has taken something of a knock, given France is the only one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council not to have produced a vaccine. That knock has been exacerbated rather than eased by seeing how many French scientists have been involved in leadership roles in the UK and US enterprises. “It is extremely distressing,” one of his supporters told me, “to feel this sense that our future had fled.”

Macron sees a route to restored pride through showing France cares not just for the French, but for the world. Even as Johnson’s battered Covid reputation benefited from attaching a Union flag to the vaccine race, and racing ahead of the EU in the delivery of first doses (though not second) Macron refused to engage in vaccine nationalism. He, every bit as much as Merkel, was the one driving EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel to devise a European strategy, even at the cost of domestic political turbulence amid early errors in Brussels. The Macron view: unless the world is vaccinated, the virus keeps winning.

“Nationalism,” he says “is the exact opposite of patriotism, a betrayal of it, as if we do not care about others.” Added to which, he worries that if the West fails to take the lead in a global effort, China and Russia will step in, to the West’s strategic cost.

Similarly, there is no compromising his view that France, and indeed the world, needs more Europe not less. He is determined to build on progress made with Merkel on his ambitious plans for Europe’s nations to do more together on defence, technology and energy, integrate capital markets, streamline EU decision making, harmonise more rules. He has unfinished business there.

Whoever succeeds Merkel as chancellor, in the Franco-German relationship Macron will take the position she had when he arrived in the Elysée – the one with the experience, the one with clear objectives long understood. Added to which, the potential of a British brake on some of his ideas will be gone from the European motor.

Macron sees no good for the UK in Brexit which, far from being ‘done’, now requires choices to be made by the UK which were avoided during what he saw as a populist campaign won on lies, and a negotiation conducted with one side – the EU – dealing in fact, and the other refusing to discard its ‘have cake and eat it’ fantasies.

A deal, he agrees, was a lot better than no deal. But the deal done was a lot better for the EU than for the UK who, if they decide to go all-out for the American model, or the Singapore model, will pay the price they sought to avoid, in terms of loss of access to the single market.

He is happy to pay the price of being the bogeyman in British eyes – check out the almost daily diet of often hilarious anti-Macron stories on the Daily Express website for his role on that front – for the strategic possibilities he sees for France in the UK decline he believes we have chosen for ourselves.

Our exit removes one of the bigger obstacles to his drive to a more political agenda for Europe, though he faces considerable opposition from the populists and nationalists leading some EU countries to the east, (one of several reasons, speaking here as an adviser to Albanian prime minister Edi Rama, I was disappointed when Macron blocked their and North Macedonia’s path to EU accession.)

That may be his biggest challenge as leader of Europe, bringing East Europe with West Europe so that the EU can genuinely compete with America and China in the global power stakes, but that is the scale of challenge he has in mind.

It was interesting how, at the recent Munich Security Conference, Boris Johnson’s speech barely figured in international media, and much of the coverage in the EU and the US, despite evident happiness in Paris and Berlin that Trump was gone and Joe Biden was president, centred on Macron and Merkel pushing back on key elements of US strategy.

Biden’s speech focused on America being back as a force for good in the world. Macron focused on “strategic autonomy”, the need for Europe to be less dependent on the US.

Yet with Brexit making the UK less powerful, its role as bridge between the US and Europe diminished, with Germany for economic reasons continuing to be more sympathetic to China than the US might wish, and the Americans somewhat alarmed at Merkel’s determination to see through the Kremlin’s pet Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, Macron also sees opportunities for increased French influence in the debate about European defence and security, and his view that Europe needs to boost its defence capabilities.

In France, as in the UK, these big strategic foreign policy issues tend to play a lesser role in elections than they used to, and that they should. But leadership plays a big role, especially as the French are electing a head of state, not just a head of government.

His own leadership has taken something of a battering at times, but it means resilience has now been added to the personal, political and psychological armoury on which Macron depends. He knows that to win again with the authority he seeks, he has to rediscover that sense of hope and energy, and new ideas, that propelled him to power almost four years ago.

Self-confidence plus maniacal work ethic was the winning formula in 2017. For 2022, he adds experience and resilience to the mix and, whatever doubts his closest supporters may have from time to time, he does not appear to share them.

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