Macron’s intention to reproduce his victory in the 2017 French Presidential elections in this year’s European elections, sweeping aside old political cleavages by bringing together a broad centrist liberal coalition as a bulwark against extremist or populist parties, is being complicated by his current domestic difficulties. But while the French President has had to scale back his ambitions, now more than ever he will be looking to the European elections to galvanize his damaged Presidency.
As recently as November, Macron’s La Republique En Marche (LREM) party was leading the battle cry for European liberals. At the ALDE congress in Madrid, close political ally of Emmanuel Macron and En Marche co-founder Astrid Panosyan promised to make Europe’s liberal political group ALDE the core of a new liberal coalition which would reach out to other pro-European parties.
The continuing street protests of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ (Yellow Jackets) have however been proving a thorn in his side when it comes to solidifying his ties with his EU friends. In recent speeches, Macron has looked to shake off his image as a liberal champion in favour of adopting the mantle of defender of the middle classes and sovereignty. Concluding his address to the French people on 10 December designed to tame the worsening street protests, Macron stated: “My only concern is you. Our only battle is for France.” In the same speech, Macron called out the “ultraliberal Europe which no longer allows middle classes to prosper.”
The change in tone matters as it distances him from ALDE. Even the very word liberal has become problematic. While ALDE insist Macron and his party embrace the “liberal” label, the French President is conscious how the term will be interpreted back home. After the Madrid Congress, the two sides committed to sign up to a common charter of principles on the free market, civil rights and the rule of law which would lay the foundations for cooperation. But the charter project has since stalled and ALDE officials are reportedly blaming En Marche for the delays. LREM have also held off on officially joining ALDE’s Team Europe of seven top candidates for EU posts that will head up the group’s European campaign.
With the opposition seeking to make the EU elections a referendum on Macron’s Presidency, LREM officials fear a rout. This means building a European liberal coalition appears to have been put on hold with priority given to the national campaign. Polls throughout December had En Marche are neck and neck with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (the relabelled Front National).
Macron’s national campaign has three priorities to persuade voters to back En Marche. First, he will devote the first quarter of 2019 to a nation-wide ‘grand dialogue’ focusing on four themes (ecological transition, taxation, governmental structure and citizenship, including migration). The government’s aim is to turn this list of grievances into concrete measures by mid-April, just in time for the EU elections.
Second, En Marche is looking to build a large coalition at home. A common list of LREM, MoDEM (centrist), Les Republicains (centre-right) and Greens is being touted in France by senior figures including former Prime Minister and centre-right stalwart Alain Juppe. In a flashback to 2017, Macron has reached out to an array of prominent public figures including former Green MEP Daniel Cohn-Bendit, rising centre-right star Mael de Calan, Karima Delli (Green MEP and chair of the Transport Committee) and economist and diplomat Laurence Tubiala (director for the European Climate Foundation).
Finally, Macron and senior LREM politicians have unofficially been encouraging a Gilets Jaunes European Parliamentary list. The movement has weakened Macron and damaged his credibility by forcing him to make reforms but paradoxically, a Gilets Jaunes party list will help Macron achieve one of his key objectives – blocking a large group of extremists in the EP. Polls currently suggest the Gilets Jaunes list could gather up to 7.5% of votes.One such list of ten candidates for the European Parliament was confirmed on 23 January, coalescing behind Ingrid Levavasseur, a 31 year old nurse and leading figure of the movement. But the move was heavily criticised from within and the highly fractious movement could splinter into several rival lists.