French President Emmanuel Macron will be trying out for the role of leader of Europe this weekend.
France’s young president, just 40 years old, has long advocated a stronger, reinvigorated European Union and regularly condemns the nationalism spreading across the continent. He stands ready to continue the fight now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled she will exit the stage.
But Europe may be too divided to accept a grand vision pronounced by a single leader, and Merkel’s departure may do more to isolate Macron than to boost his standing.
“Europeans are too deeply divided among themselves — and on the fundamentals,” said Dominique Moïsi, a foreign policy analyst at the Institut Montaigne in Paris and former Macron campaign adviser.
“What you have is a Europe that is segmenting into different tribes,” said Mark Leonard, director of the London-based European Council on Foreign Relations. These segments are multiplying along an increasing number of fractures, he said.
“There is a clear north-south division over the euro crisis and an east-west division over migration and Russia,” he said. “You also have highly polarized societies in most member states, and that does mean that having a single leader of Europe is kind of utopian at the moment.”
Perhaps the biggest question for Macron’s position in Europe is what will happen after Merkel leaves office.
The German chancellor has announced that she will not seek reelection as chairman of her political party next month or as Germany’s leader when her term ends in 2021.
Merkel has been a constant of European politics since she assumed the chancellery in 2005, outlasting many of her opponents abroad and challenges to her leadership from within.
Without her, Macron will have less competition as the dominant player in Europe, but he will also lose a key political ally.
The Franco-German alliance has been called the “motor” of the E.U., the central connection without which the entire European machine would cease to function. Many of the E.U.’s recent successes have depended on productive partnerships across the Rhine: Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand in the 1980s and 1990s; and Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, dubbed “Merkozy,” in the early 2010s.
Macron and Merkel, too, have had a fine partnership. Internal pressure from the more conservative factions of her shaky coalition government forced Merkel to resist some of Macron’s European proposals — notably his plans for further economic integration. But she has been a tireless defender of the E.U. since before Macron emerged onto the scene. Her absence will likely leave Macron on his own in the defense of an “ever greater” union.
“The center doesn’t really hold in the same way that it did,” Leonard said. “It looks more like a Franco-German bunker than a motor.”
There may soon be only one man left in that bunker. Even if Merkel is succeeded by someone with a similar ideology, that person undoubtedly would bring less clout.
“France is a very important [E.U.] member state, but not strong enough on its own to bring other countries along with it,” Leonard added.
On the world stage, Macron has already had many disappointments. Despite his efforts to woo President Trump, he watched helplessly as the United States withdrew from the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. Trump will further slight the French president by attending the ceremony but skipping the peace summit this weekend.
Within France, Macron has successfully pushed through a host of revisions designed to liberalize a famously regulated labor market and to stimulate economic growth. But he has paid a heavy price in popularity. According to a September poll from Ifop, a leading French polling agency, his approval rating is at 29 percent, less than half of what it was when he was elected in May 2017.
By contrast, Europe’s leading nationalist voices, whom Macron has publicly challenged on any number of occasions, remain quite popular. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and de facto leader, enjoys an approval rating of 59 percent, according to a poll released this week by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica — making Salvini roughly twice as popular among Italians as Macron is with the French.
“He’s weakened by the fact that he’s orphaned by Merkel,” said Moïsi, “and he’s weakened inside by the spectacular fall of his popularity.”
A separate Ifop poll, published Sunday, shows that Macron’s party, La République En Marche, or Republic on the Move, has less support than France’s far-right Rassemblement National, or National Rally, in advance of the 2019 European parliamentary elections.
“In a way, the summit that opens this weekend comes a bit too late for him,” Moïsi said.
Macron, nonetheless, has focused his pitch this week on his concern about the resurgence of populist tribalism in Europe and the importance of political integration, which he credits with guaranteeing European prosperity and peace.
In interviews, he has invoked the darkest chapters of Europe’s recent history to underscore his anxieties about its present.
“I’m struck to see two things that resemble terribly the 1930s,” Macron told France’s Europe 1 radio. “The fact that our Europe was rocked by a profound economic and financial crisis . . . and the rise of nationalisms that play on fears.”
The point, he said, is to recognize the fragility of the European enterprise launched after the two world wars.
“We need a strong Europe, one that protects,” he said.
The question is how many of his guests agree.