PARIS — He is not low key or known for listening, key attributes of his former German counterpart, Angela Merkel.
But with his reelection Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron has arguably cemented another role, some say: succeeding Merkel as the European Union’s de-facto leader, with his call for a stronger, closer EU resonating, especially with the war in Ukraine.
“Merkel was more of a crisis manager but with no vision,” said Sebastien Maillard, director of the Paris-based Jacques Delors Institute think tank. “Macron has a clear vision of what kind of European integration he wants.”
Not surprisingly, most European leaders cheered Macron’s win against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who called for drastically overhauling and downgrading the 27-member bloc.
“In this turbulent period, we need a solid Europe and a France totally committed to a more sovereign and more strategic European Union,” tweeted European Council President Charles Michel.
Macron’s second and final five-year term as French president may help push those goals forward. How far will depend not only on getting other EU leaders on board, but also on what happens in France, starting with the outcome of June parliamentary elections.
Additionally, the next two months, when France wraps up the rotating EU presidency, will offer an immediate test.
Three areas are particularly key, analyst Maillard said: pushing through EU energy sanctions against Moscow — a sticking point for Germany, which is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas, and possibly for Poland, after Russia’s announcement it would halt gas supplies; moving forward on Macron’s call for a closer and stronger European defense; and deciding on EU membership bids, starting with Ukraine.
Next month, Macron is expected to present his vision of Europe’s future at a conference in Strasbourg, France. It’s not the first to be laid out by the 44-year-old leader, whose reelection celebrations were accompanied by the EU anthem, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy.”
Macron may benefit from the tailwinds of multiple recent challenges, from euroskeptic U.S. President Donald Trump to the COVID-19 crisis and now Russia’s war in Ukraine, which helped to reshape European citizens’ sentiments about Brussels.
“We wouldn’t be vaccinated without Europe, our economy wouldn’t have recovered without European support and our sanctions against Russia would be senseless if they weren’t on this (EU-wide) scale,” Maillard said.
Even in French elections, dominated by domestic concerns, the EU helped determine some voting choices. Macron himself called the runoff against Le Pen a “referendum” on Europe.
“I’m very frightened about what would happen to France, in Europe and in the world, if we had Marine Le Pen as president,” said Paris-area senior Benedicte Tardivo, who cast her ballot for Macron.
Public opinion also appears to have softened Le Pen’s once staunchly anti-Europe platform.
“Now, Marine Le Pen is not advocating to leave the EU, because she saw the French are actually attached to it,” said expert Mathilde Ciulla, of the European Council on Foreign Relations policy institute. “So, she talks about changing it from within, which I think is a kind of victory for Macron.”
Such wins aren’t happening everywhere.
Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, who embraces an “illiberal democracy” and flouts EU rule-of-law principles, recently won a fourth term in office. But he appears increasingly alone.
Besides Le Pen, another euroskeptic ally, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, lost her election bid this past week. Another EU dissident, Poland, has earned marks for taking in millions of Ukrainian refugees and, unlike Hungary, is hostile to Moscow.
“Orban is weakened,” said analyst Maillard. “He’s been reelected in his own country. But he’s isolated among the 27 other member states. While Macron, right now, is the most prominent leader within the European Council” of EU heads of state.
Macron’s bigger challenge, some say, may not be leadership, but rather becoming a better team player, adopting the kind of consensus-building skills that Merkel excelled at. Not just for Europe, but also for France, where critics say he fails to listen and accept other viewpoints.
“Macron has the faults of his virtues,” wrote historian Timothy Garden Ash in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. “I have never seen a human being with more drive, ambition, energy and self-belief. But he can often seem arrogant, Jupiterian, neo-Napoleonic – and therefore rubs a great many of his compatriots and fellow Europeans the wrong way.”
Analyst Ciulla suggests another approach.
“I think it would be a mistake for him to position himself as the leader of Europe,” she said. “France is not the best at building coalitions, but France should try to build coalitions.”
Rather than going it alone, she and others say, Macron should make key state visits early in his second term — to Moscow and to Kyiv — with other European leaders.
While Macron has carried on the traditional French-German partnership considered an EU linchpin — first with Merkel and now her successor Olaf Scholz — he went solo in February to see President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, hoping to secure a peace commitment days before the Ukraine war.
Last year, he surprised some by announcing that France’s Barkhane military operation in the Sahel would end and be folded into a broader EU one, called Takuba.
“It was an effort to Europeanize France’s presence in the Sahel,” Ciulla said, “but it’s not very nice, not very collaborative, not to let your allies know.”
But Macron’s long-held vision of “strategic autonomy” — strengthening the EU’s economic, technological and military independence — is gaining ground among one-time skeptics. This is especially true since the war in Ukraine began, with Germany, in particular, spectacularly boosting its military spending.
“The way Germany changed its policy, the way sanctions [against Russia] were decided very quickly, it’s all about strategic autonomy at the end,” Ciulla said. “It’s about sovereignty and the capacity to act, and very quickly react.”
June legislative elections in France may determine just how much leeway Macron has to continue pushing his European agenda. Both far-right Le Pen and far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, another EU critic, hope to score significantly.
More importantly, perhaps, will be how Macron fares in pushing through unpopular reforms, including boosting the retirement age from 62 to 65.
“If he gets another yellow vest movement, that would be damaging” for Macron’s EU credentials, said Maillard of Jacques Delors, referring to massive popular protests that marked the president’s first term in office. “If you’re not able to manage your own backyard, obviously your leadership is decreased.”
Macron is betting on another outcome.
“This is his last term, and he wants to leave something to history,” Maillard added. “I think it will probably be on his European contribution.”