The French Background of Macron’s European Agenda

Photo by European Parliament (Uploaded on Flickr January 2022 CC BY 2.0)

The French President’s vision for Europe, often hailed as ambitious and progressive, is seemingly at odds with his conventional neoliberal domestic policies. However, behind this discrepancy lies a coherent strategy which is key to his reelection.

In his speech at the European Parliament on 19 January, Emmanuel Macron outlined his vision for the European Union based on ‘three promises’ of ‘democracy’, ‘progress’ and ‘peace’. Behind the fancy words were briefly delineated objectives of a more sovereign European Union facing new geopolitical challenges, a new growth model tackling climate change and growing inequalities, and a defence of the rule of law.

Facing reelection in April, Macron intends to use the French Presidency of the European Union (FPEU) as a political tool at both the national and European level. In so doing he is playing to his strengths: he has been coherent in his European policies ever since his 2017 presidential campaign in which he called for greater integration and reforms. By examining his European track record and the objectives of the FPEU and discussing his political standing in the French context, we will see how the European policy sphere is entangled with national politics.

After a victorious campaign in 2017 where he presented himself as a European progressive, Macron laid out his vision for the future of the European Union in a speech at the Sorbonne in September of the same year, outlining the same themes: defence, ecology, digitalisation, and social reforms within a more sovereign EU.

Here are examples of what he calls ‘major progress’:

  • The creation of a European Defence Fund with an 8 billion euro investment for the years 2021-2027 only accounts for 0.5% of the combined defence budget of member states. 
  • The 2050 carbon neutrality objectives are ambitious but not binding. The part played by environmental expenses in the 2021-2027 EU has been artificially inflated according to a report of the European Court of Auditors in 2020.
  • The modification in 2018 of the highly contested 1996 Posted Workers Directive only extended the adherence to the minimum standards of the hosting state to bonuses (social contributions, which make up the bulk of the social dumping, are still excluded) and reduced the posting time limit from 2 years to 1 – the average  time was only 4 months.

A pattern emerges in which much talk yields scant results, something which is still common in European politics where negotiating objectives are announced and then compromised among the partners. But Macron often indulges in presenting himself as a great reformer, a view reinforced by the European establishment who saw his 2017 election as a welcome rebuttal of the ‘nationalist’ and ‘populist’ wave.[1]

For the FPEU, Macron intends to make progress in specific areas: the implementation of the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism and the struggle against ‘imported deforestation’; a European minimum wage legislation in order to boost the low salaries of the poorer member states; a right of initiative for the European Parliament; and the reinforcement of the European Border and Coast Guard in order to curb illegal immigration. Macron still proposes progressive objectives whilst appearing strong on immigration to accommodate right-wing member states. But as we have seen, his ability to deliver will depend on the good will of the other member states.

This European public image of a (progressive) reformer stems partly from his genuine European strategy and also from a politically driven need to appear as the sole leader of the Europhile faction in French politics where Euroscepticism has always been strong.

Macron has several times stated that to be progressive in Europe, France needed to be taken seriously by its partners (that is, Germany and the Frugal Four Austria, Denmark, Netherlands, Sweden) and thus, engage in structural reforms in order to respect its budget obligations.[2] These domestic reforms, disrupting the labour market and slashing taxes for the wealthy, are seen as a tool to reestablish France as a viable partner.

Despite the discrepancy between his public persona and his policies, Macron maintains a firm hold on his 2017 electorate: two thirds of his 2017 voters will vote for him again in 2022, along with a quarter of those who voted for the conservative right candidate in 2017. With the drift to the right of the political landscape – Macron’s three main challengers (Pécresse, Le Pen and Zemmour) are to his right – his centrist public image remains unscathed. On the left, numerous candidates are fighting for a mere 25% of the electorate.

In order to close this gap, Macron has another trump card – his European agenda where he is by far the most coherent and credited as such by the voters. Euroscepticism has always been important in France, from the narrow approval by referendum (50.8%) of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 to the clear rejection (by 54.7%) of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005.

The erosion of the former governing parties of left and right (the Parti Socialiste and Les Républicains), allowed Macron to merge their centre-left and centre-right Europhile factions and uses European issues to unify his electorate bloc. This has made more visible a divide (only really salient during the European referendum campaigns) between a mainstream political centre promoting European integration and two divergent brands of Euroscepticism: on the left the liberal framework of the treaties is denounced while on the right it is the material and symbolic loss of sovereignty, especially in the regulation of immigration.

The conflation of the different criticisms of the EU in a coherent political position is a mainstream media narrative about the end of the classical left-right divide that is allegedly superseded by an opposition between those in favour of Europe and the sceptics. In a typical form of dominant ideology,[3] what appears as an opposition is in fact a hierarchy between ‘Europtimists’,’embracing change’, and ‘Eurosceptics’, discarded as ‘nationalist’ and ‘rearguard’. This makes the Rassemblement National the main opposition to Macron. Since critical stances on the EU are sometimes difficult to distinguish – the opposition to posted workers may be on social grounds as well as xenophobic ones – some on the left and right have proposed a union of Eurosceptics (coined as ‘le souverainisme des deux rives’).

Thanks to the PFEU, Macron can increase the salience of European issues to his advantage since other ‘Europtimist’ candidates such as the Greens or the PS are stranded at 5% in the national polls. Having a virtual monopoly on favouring European integration, he can thus exploit the inherent traps of a Euro-critical position and plays his favourite hand: there is no more left and right, only people in favour of Europe, embracing reason and modernity and their rearguard rejectionist opponents.


[1] On the cover of the 17-23 June 2017 of the Economist he is dubbed ‘Europe’s savior’.

[2] In an interview in the Le Grand Continent on 16 November 2020, Macron states:
… we are at a breaking point […] of contemporary capitalism […] that has become increasingly financialized, that has become over-concentrated and that no longer allows us to manage the inequalities in our societies and at the international level. And we can only respond to these issues by overhauling it. First of all, we cannot do it in a single country – in this respect I have launched a policy in this sense for which I assume responsibility. Just as socialism has not worked in one country, the fight against this mode of capitalism is ineffective in one country.

[3] Pierre Bourdieu and, Luc Boltanski, La production de l’idéologie dominante, Actes de la Recherche en Sciences Sociales, 1976, pp. 3-73.