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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron is adamant his run for reelection won’t hijack his presidency of the Council of the EU, but that’s not how his European partners and election rivals see it.
France’s six-month-long presidency of the Council kicks off in January, while the presidential election will be held in mid-April. He is expected to formally announce he is seeking a second term at the beginning of the year.
As a result, many European officials are working off the assumption that the heart of the French EU presidency will mainly play out in the first two to three months, with French ministers focusing on the campaign after that.
Macron’s political opponents at home have accused him of planning to use the EU presidency to bolster his re-election drive, as a way to showcase his leadership on European issues and rally his voters.
Meanwhile, European policymakers and diplomats are looking to Paris with a mix of hope that French diplomats will be able to push through hefty files and concern they will use their role shepherding negotiations in the Council to twist policy compromises to their advantage.
“Nobody expects the French will be honest brokers during their presidency,” an EU diplomat said earlier this year, referring to the country’s agenda on trade. “That’s fine. But there is a limit to what they can get away with.”
In reality, national politics are already seeping into the French EU presidency before it’s even begun. The priorities Macron revealed were strongly geared toward a national electorate, and his conservative and Green Party election rivals put forth competing agendas for the EU.
With the presidency, Macron has a high-profile opportunity to demonstrate to his would-be voters how the EU benefits them on a daily basis and to counter the far right’s rhetoric about France’s decline by showcasing French power within the Union.
With former German Chancellor Angela Merkel no longer in power, Macron currently has more political sway on the EU level.
He also has key allies in Brussels. Stéphane Séjourné, his former political adviser, recently took over the presidency of Renew Europe, the third-largest group in the European Parliament. He will be key in rallying the needed votes to back political compromises reached between the Parliament and Council.
Séjourné already helped French MEPs secure key roles on some of France’s policy priorities in the European Parliament, like Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, who was named rapporteur for the Digital Markets Act — the EU’s rulebook to tame U.S. tech giants’ market power — in the Economic Affairs Committee.
But the presidency also represents a risk for Macron if he can’t get clear-cut positive results instead of the fudges that often emerge from the EU’s legislative machinery.
More than a third of French voters currently say they will vote for far-right, ultra-nationalist, Euroskeptic candidates like Marine Le Pen or Eric Zemmour, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls — and the French population is the most Euroskeptic in the EU, along with the Greeks, according to a poll by Kantar Public and the Institut Jacques Delors.
With that in mind, the president chose to start off his hour-long presentation on the EU presidency at the Elysée Palace in Paris with an ambitious — some might say impossible — initiative to reform the functioning of the visa-free Schengen travel zone and “move the European migration package forward.”
Leading candidates in France’s presidential election have made migration a central focus of their stump speeches, including far-right candidates like Le Pen and Zemmour and conservative Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse, who is surging in the polls.
Pécresse countered Macron’s vision with her own.
“I call for a European awakening, ” Pécresse wrote in an op-ed recently. “I will propose an overhaul of the Schengen agreement and of the European migration policy.”
Revising the returns directive on the expulsion rules for illegal immigrants in the EU and ending EU enlargement —including by formally ending accession talks with Turkey — feature high on her agenda.
Beyond migration, Macron focused his other priorities on a distinctly French view of how the European single market and economic recovery should be shaped, with more emphasis on protecting European jobs and supporting European businesses than on fostering competition within the EU or opening the market to more foreign competitors.
“We must have one obsession — it is to create jobs and fight unemployment,” said Macron.
He also wants to launch an initiative on historical revisionism in Europe, an issue he has long paid attention to, especially given revisionist attempts by Russia, Hungary or Poland, but which has taken on a new importance in recent weeks with Zemmour’s rewriting of France’s involvement in Nazi war crimes.
Other presidential contenders have offered different visions of Europe.
Green Party presidential hopeful Yannick Jadot suggested a different social model based on “combatting austerity” by exempting green investments from the EU’s stability pact and beefing up the Green Deal, the European Commission’s proposals to make the EU’s climate, energy, transport and taxation policy fit for reducing net greenhouse gas emissions.
“Emmanuel Macron made the choice of having a shrunken, biased presidency [of the Council of the EU], divided into two by the presidential election,” Jadot declared.
But that is part of Macron’s bet. Currently polling at 24 percent in the first round of the election, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls — while Jadot is at 7 percent — Macron is banking on picking up the presidency of the Council of the EU with a renewed stronger mandate after winning reelection and pressing for more reforms like more common European debt and a new migration pact.
Barbara Moens and Laura Kayali contributed reporting.