French President Emmanuel Macron is on the offensive, seeking to regain his footing after being mocked by Italy’s leaders, largely ignored by Germany’s rising political generation and threatened by Yellow Vest protesters.
Three months before a European election, the burst of assertiveness signals Macron is stepping up his campaign to boost his standing after months of scandals and domestic trouble. In the process, he also wants to deny nationalist parties a triumph at the polls.
The activism has landed Macron, 41, in the worst diplomatic dispute with Italy since World War II. He also miffed leaders in Berlin by seeking limits on Nord Stream 2, the natural-gas pipeline from Russia supported by Chancellor Angela Merkel, though France and Germany found a compromise in the end.
“The reason Macron finds himself in a tense situation on a series of issues is that the European elections are approaching,” said Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
Relations with Italy cratered when France recalled its ambassador to Rome, citing meddling in domestic affairs after Deputy Premier Luigi Di Maio met with senior figures of the Yellow Vests movement in France. The same day, France ignored German wishes by insisting on EU oversight of Nord Stream 2.
“With the Italians we needed to hit hard, with Germany we needed to makes things clear,” a French government adviser said.
Macron took the presidency in 2017 promising to remake the EU as a global geopolitical power. Then, Italy’s election in March swept out an allied government in Rome. Merkel, undermined by the rise of a German anti-immigration party, said in October she won’t seek another term as chancellor and subsequently quit as head of her party.
Merkel’s successors are less inclined to accommodate France on further integration of the euro zone. The two governments also differ on the response by populism: France’s call to take a proactive approach doesn’t resonate in Germany, the official said. Germany was taken aback by France’s insistence that Nord Stream 2 be subject to EU oversight, but French officials say the government in Berlin was aware of their position.