2017 Yearender

Macron: Jupiter descends to Earth

Mr Emmanuel Macron, the youngest person to become French President, won by offering a vision of an open France engaging with the world.
Mr Emmanuel Macron, the youngest person to become French President, won by offering a vision of an open France engaging with the world.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"I don't want to be the leader of Europe; I want to be one of the leaders," French President Emmanuel Macron quipped recently in response to a journalist's question.

He could have hardly said anything else. But modesty does not sit well with the man often referred to at home as "Jupiter", after the king of gods in ancient Rome. For many in Europe, he is the continent's miraculous saviour.

Few have had such a meteoric rise. Just a few years ago, Mr Macron was one of those faceless high-flying French bureaucrats destined to a life in the corridors of power, but seldom in the limelight.

Yet, at just 39, he has become President, the youngest ever to do so in France. He did it not by pushing his way through the ruling class, but by outmanoeuvring it altogether.

More astonishingly still, he won not by bowing to the anti-globalisation, anti-immigration populist backlash, but by offering precisely the opposite: a vision of an open France engaging with the world.

The snag for Mr Macron is that the coming year will not only test his ability to deliver on his promises; it will also be the year in which a verdict will be delivered on the entire Macron experiment.

The former banker is clearly interested in implementing free market reforms, by making the labour force more flexible and by transforming Paris into the continent's financial centre, as London's monopoly over that title is now under threat.

But his biggest bet is on reforming Europe by binding Germany closer to France.

In effect, he is suggesting that France should give up more national sovereignty in return for Germany accepting that if European nations come under financial pressure, other EU member-states would be there to bail them out.

Mr Macronenvisages the establishment of a European finance minister and a European Union-wide budget; he also accepts that in return, France would have to change, by becoming more productive and more frugal, just like Germany.

German politicians are keen to help; they too see Mr Macron as Europe's brightest star and understand that if he fails to deliver, the future may look grim for the EU.

But Germany's inability to form a solid coalition government may mean huge delays in meeting France's expectations. And the idea of a common budget - with its implications that Germany would contribute more towards the poorer states - remains political dynamite with the German electorate.

Meanwhile, opposition to Mr Macron's domestic reforms is strengthening, and the hardest political changes that he wants to implement have yet to bite.

The risk is, therefore, that he will end next year still empty-handed, with no concessions in Europe and little progress on reform in France.

And he knows that if that happens, the French electorate will be unforgiving.

For the moment, Jupiter is still ruling the skies. But he will soon have to descend to Earth.

Jonathan Eyal

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2017, with the headline 'Macron: Jupiter descends to Earth'. Print Edition | Subscribe