With Merkel leaving, is Macron the new leader of Europe?

Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes German Chancellor Angela Merkel for a last working dinner in Paris before she steps down as chancellor. The French president is vying to fill her shoes as Europe's natural leader.

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Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most prominent head of state. It’s leaving space for French President Emmanuel Macron to fill the power vacuum left in her wake.

Mr. Macron has been a great promoter of Europe since his early days as the president of France. And it’s been a top priority as of late, amid the pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical tensions with Russia and China. “France has been actively trying to influence the EU’s trajectory,” says Georgina Wright of Institut Montaigne in Paris. “A lot of what the EU is discussing at the moment [are] all the things France has been pushing and decisions close to Macron’s heart.”

Why We Wrote This

For more than a decade, Europeans have looked to Germany’s Angela Merkel to lead with unshakeable ethics. Now, as she prepares to leave office, can France’s Emmanuel Macron take up her mantle?

But Mr. Macron has not persuaded Europeans that he can lead them. A recent poll found that 41% of European Union citizens would vote for Ms. Merkel versus 14% for Mr. Macron in a hypothetical election for the EU presidency.

“Macron has failed to take other members [of the EU] on board. He is a leader with no followers,” says Jana Puglierin, a co-author of the study. “He has ambitious ideas ... but he needs to be more trustworthy and more inclusive, more like Merkel in this respect.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has been zipping around France at frenetic speed in recent weeks, delivering speeches about law and order, unveiling public art, and promising greener high-speed trains. 

With the French presidential elections looming next June, Mr. Macron is positioning himself for the race – though he has yet to officially declare his intention to run. 

But as he does so, there is another leadership role to fill that is equally pressing. Angela Merkel is stepping down after 16 years as Germany’s chancellor and Europe’s most prominent head of state. That’s leaving space for France – Europe’s second largest country and the other player in a historically close Franco-German partnership – and Mr. Macron to fill the power vacuum she will leave.

Why We Wrote This

For more than a decade, Europeans have looked to Germany’s Angela Merkel to lead with unshakeable ethics. Now, as she prepares to leave office, can France’s Emmanuel Macron take up her mantle?

But as France prepares to take over the six-month rotating European Union Council presidency in January and Germany enters a period of flux as it works out its leadership coalition, Mr. Macron must bring more than ambition to the table. He’ll first have to contend with filling Ms. Merkel’s formidable shoes. The German chancellor has been lauded for her unwavering ethics, measured politics, and consensus-building ability when it comes to controversial decisions on immigration and the economy.

Having a strong figurehead for Europe “is of fundamental importance,” says Paul Vallet, a Franco-American researcher of European history at the Geneva Center for Security Policy. “One reason people at the local level feel detached from Europe’s role in the world is that they feel detached from official EU leaders.

“So it absolutely does matter how much clout a leader can manage to wield,” he argues. Besides Ms. Merkel, “there are very few personalities that are standing out, so it leaves room for the French president to appear as an extremely competent driver of procedure.”

A French vision for Europe

European cooperation is increasingly important to France, especially amid the challenges currently facing both the nation and the bloc. The EU’s potential for resilience and independent defense capabilities has topped the French agenda in recent weeks, after Australia canceled a submarine contract with France worth $66 billion, choosing instead to partner with the United States and Britain. But the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and geopolitical challenges from Russia and China had already highlighted the value of member state cooperation.

Kenzo Tribouillard/AP
French President Emmanuel Macron (right) is greeted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg as he arrives for a NATO summit in Brussels on June 14, 2021. Mr. Macron's suggestion two years ago that the alliance was "brain dead" cost him credibility in Eastern Europe.

Mr. Macron has been a great promoter of Europe since his early days as French president, giving an ambitious speech at the Sorbonne University that proposed a detailed reform agenda focusing on continental sovereignty and defense, and calling on Germany to play a leading role.

“France has been actively trying to influence the EU’s trajectory,” says Georgina Wright, head of the Europe Program of the Institut Montaigne, a think tank in Paris. “I think it’s evidently clear that a lot of what the EU is discussing at the moment – be that the climate deal, EU foreign policy, or decisions around tech regulation – they’re all the things France has been pushing and decisions close to Macron’s heart.”

But Mr. Macron’s achievements have fallen short of his ambitions. That is partly because of the inherent difficulty of reaching policy consensus among all 27 EU members. But it also has something to do with the French leader’s style, and the way he is perceived in comparison with Ms. Merkel.

“Merkel is analytic and a very integrative person, so she tries to bring people on board to find compromise,” says Daniela Schwarzer, executive director of Europe and Eurasia at the Open Society Foundations. “Macron has a far more disruptive understanding of change. There’s a difference between the two approaches that is very much anchored in the respective political cultures of France and Germany.”

Last month, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) published a study that confirmed some of the apprehension surrounding Mr. Macron’s ability to unite Europe. It showed that EU citizens saw Germany as a trustworthy, pro-European power, with Ms. Merkel a major source of that positive image. Their poll found that 41% of respondents would vote for Ms. Merkel versus 14% for Mr. Macron in a hypothetical election for the EU presidency.

Hesitancy among Europeans

The comparative lack of support may be due in part over Mr. Macron’s handling of troubles at home. His presidency has been marred by social unrest, notably the yellow vest protests, and domestic terrorism.

And even if Mr. Macron has always promoted a strong vision for Europe with innovative ideas, he has been criticized for antagonizing his neighbors. For example, in November 2019 he said that NATO was experiencing “brain death” in an interview with The Economist. His blunt words sounded to German ears like a suggestion that NATO was worthless, and they alienated Central and Eastern European nations for whom NATO is an invaluable element of their defense.

“Macron has failed to take other members [of the EU] on board. He is a leader with no followers,” says Jana Puglierin, head of the ECFR Berlin office. “He has ambitious ideas and wants to change the status quo ... but he needs to be more trustworthy and more inclusive, more like Merkel in this respect.”

Observers say Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi shouldn’t be counted out as an influential figure for Europe, and that Rome, Berlin, and Paris could potentially form a triangular alliance to help move decisions forward. 

Still, Germany and France’s historically strong partnership will most likely dominate the European policy agenda – Germany as the largest in the bloc and France as one of the most enthusiastic about European integration and sovereignty.

Mr. Macron’s ability to lead Europe will, of course, depend on whether he can convince the French that he should remain their leader. If and when he officially begins campaigning for the presidential bid, his Europe agenda could fall by the wayside. But on pressing issues such as climate change, rule of law, defense, and integration, France clearly has an important role to play.

“Macron has been trying really hard to invest in his relations with EU leaders. Member states know that France is one of the only EU countries that has a European agenda and who can push through pieces of legislation,” says Ms. Wright of the Institut Montaigne.

Whether that translates into a personal leadership role for Mr. Macron, though, is another matter. “The thing about Europe is, there is no one leader and no one is expecting one leader,” Ms. Wright adds. “What people are looking for is for the EU to move forward and continue to reform. No one is expecting a continuation of Merkel.”

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