France’s new president Macron moves fast on relaunching EU reforms with Chancellor Merkel backed by his new, pro-EU government that mixes figures from the left, right and center

Credits: Kamil ZIHNIOGLU / AP / SIPA

By Axel Krause

 

Paris, May 18, 2017

 

 

Moving quickly following his election Sunday, having defeated his far-right opponent Marine Le Pen, President Emmanuel Macron on Monday flew to Berlin for his first high-profile presidential meeting with a foreign leader – Germany’s Chancellor Angela  Merkel.

 

Smiling and relaxed, they obviously hit it off, agreeing to relaunch and strengthen economic-financial cooperation within the languishing European Union and even, if necessary, re-writing governing EU treaties.

 

As an obviously admiring Merkel nodded in agreement during their joint conference in Berlin, Macron pledged that « the French agenda will be a reform agenda » aimed at significantly reducing France’s unemployment,  now just under 10%, deficits and sparking lackluster growth, productivity plus stricter accountability of elected officials.

 

France’s new, centrist leader and former investment banker, was guardedly prefiguring what emerged yesterday – a new-look, precedent-shaking government to implement these and other reforms led by a moderate, right-wing, pro-EU prime minister, Edouard  Philippe, and a similarly-oriented econonic-finance-industry minister, Bruno Le Maire, a former state secretary for Europe in the former conservative government of President Nicolas Sarkozy.

 

Pledging to be Germany’s « frank, direct and constructive partner, » while making a major contribution to EU defense and security, and reinforcing globally-reaching economic and protective trade policies centered on further integrating on the 19-member eurozone, Macron wants a streamlined economic-financial executive in Brussels and EU budget ; proposals that have, however,  met resistance from Merkel’s powerful, deeply-conservative finance minister, Wolfgang Schauble. Until now.

 

« Macron wants to see changes in France and we support him in that, » Schauble told  last week’s Der Spiegel magazine, having « proven his courage by leading an election campaign friendly to Europe and reform against the majority opinion of the Socialist Party…we are all wishing him success. »

 

Further indicating he is willing at some point to re-examine Macron’s proposals, notably for an EU budget, the minister said that « I support every realistic step in joint intitiatives in Europe…regarding a European budget, sweeping change, would also require amending the European treaties. There are not many people in Europe right now who consider that to be realistic. »

 

But Merkel was and is looking ahead, indicating her support for Macron’s proposals that would include a planned joint French-German cabinet meeting in July when defense and economic issues top the agenda.  She told reporters that « Europe can only prosper when France and Germany prosper…(I am)  aware of the responsibility at this critical point for the European Union, when we can and must take the right decision for the benefit of the people in our countries, » she said.

 

Also indicating that obstacles and resistance remain in both countries, Merkel noted that « we don’t agree on every single thing. There are discussions that need to happen…they started today. »

 

Macron’s proposals also involve French and European interests when it comes to trade and will most certaintly surface when the French leader meets with US President Donald Trump over a working lunch scheduled for May 25 ; as part of Trump’s visit to four countries that begins this weekend.

 

The two leaders will meet in Brussels, prior to a  G7 summit meeting in Sicily the following day. Trump will also meet with EU heads of state and government next Thursday, many of whom have distanced themselves from the administration, pending face-to-face discussions with the US president.

 

The long-standing French protectionist stance, as Paul Taylor of Politico Europe, put it : focuses on « reforming EU rules to stop imported east European labor undercutting French workers by paying a fraction of their social contributions.

He (Macron) wants the EU to get tougher on anti-dumping duties and impose reciprocity on foreign strategic investment in Europe or access to public procurement tenders – wins that would reassure those in France who doubt Europe is doing anything to protect them. »

 

It amounts to establishing Buy European legislation, inspired by US procurement policies dating from the FDR’s policy of combating the 1930s Great Depression, and is highly controversial among European, free-trade and export-oriented EU conservatives, notably in Germany, and even among top trade officials at the European Commission in Brussels.

 

Leaving aside the EU’s highy-complex economic and trade-related issues, there is no denying the new sense of possible European revival that Macron and Merkel have created. Even Schauble, like many of us – yours truly in this space – noted on the night of Macron’s victory, « I was impressed…by the sound of the European anthem (from Beethoven’s ninth symphony)…a very powerful symbol. »

 

Few EU leaders have put it more eloquently and pointedly than Belgium’s former prme minister and a veteran, centrist, reform-bent member of the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt. He wrote in yesterday’s International New York Times: « The lesson from Mr. Macron’s victory is that the ideals of the European Union are still very much alive. But this can be only the beginning of something new, not the conclusion. The hard work starts now. Europe’s citizens are inspired to vote for politicians who stand up for Europe, but they will extend our mandate only if we deliver. And fast, please. »

 

And this is precisely what the new French government is commited to doing, holding their first cabinet meeting at the Elysée Palace today, with Macron presiding.

 

At his side, responsible for proposing and implementing reform legislation, was the little-known, lanky 46-year-old Edouard Philippe, until now the highly-popular mayor of the Normany port city of  Le Havre. And he makes no bones about being of the right, France’s Republican party, that trailed Macron’s En Avant (On the Move) party in the presidential election.

 

But he is solidly with Macron, affirming his support for his pledge to govern outside the traditional left-right division of French politics, and which is reflected in their choice of ministers – eleven men, eleven women, including a pro-European defense minister. Yet Philippe, whose grandfather was a docker ; was a Socialist in his student days and is also, like Macron and others in the governemnt,  a graduate of France’s elite graduate school for civil servants, the national school for administration, ENA.

 

And though Le Maire’s deputy at the economic-finance ministry in charge of public finances, will be Gerald Darmanin, 34, another right-winger, the predominant, double-sided character of the new, diverse governent is proven experience, and commitment to building a stronger, united European Union.

 

For example, the seasoned, Socialist president of the Brittany region, Jean-Yves Le Drian, 69, and until now defense minister, is taking over the the renamed ministry for Europe and foreign affairs and has been commited to streamlining and expanding cooperative European defense programs.

 

His successor is Sylvie Goulard, 51, a veteran member of the European Parliament and well-known in EU circles as a European federalist ; she will have reporting to her Marielle de Sarnez, 66, also a centrist-leaning member of the European Parliament, and a longtime partner in politics with the François Bayrou, 65, a former education minister, who was named justice minister, following his centrist party’s alliance with that of Macron.

 

Others in the government reflect unprecedented choices based on competence and experience outside government; including the former head of Essec, a leading business school ; an outspoken environmentalist, a physician, researcher and medical school professor, the CEO of a leading publishing house;another of the French subway system, plus an Olympic fencing champion.

 

Le Maire wisely summed up the task of the incoming government as follows, worth considering for comparison with the current, chaotic political scene in Washington : « We have to deliver, put aside those little politicians’ quarrels, those sectarian divisons which lead us nowhere…making space for debate, for rapid and constructive decisions. That’s what the majority of of our citizens want today and our responsibility is immense. »

 

But time is short since and pressure for results immense for a key reason : the new governement faces a two-round parliamentary election June 11-18, to replace the current 577-seat, Socialist-dominated National Assembly. Ministers running for re-election who lose are required to resign. And that could mean yet another new government, another major challenge for Macron.

 

 

Axel Krause is the Paris-based Contributing Editor of TransAtlantic Magazine, who has spent decades covering France, Europe and Russia for Business Week magazine and the International Herald Tribune.

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