Now Angela Merkel Steps Into Emmanuel Macron's Shadow

Now Angela Merkel Steps Into Emmanuel Macron's Shadow

Why you should care

Because Berlin used to write the EU’s agenda, but Paris currently has the stage to itself.

How long before he is marching on Moscow? Reaction in Berlin to Emmanuel Macron’s European ambitions can be less than generous. Macron, you are reminded, would not be the first French president to have been carried away by his own grandiose rhetoric. Remember Nicolas Sarkozy’s promise of a great “rupture” to restore French leadership?

Last week saw Macron playing on the international stage during a state visit to China. Europe is back, he told his host, Xi Jinping. There was no need to add that by “Europe,” he means France. Whether it is with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Xi, the youthful Macron has mastered the part of statesman-summiteer. Unabashed, he wraps a European flag around France’s national interests.

The Napoleon gibe says as much about the condition of German politics as it does about France. You can see why German policymakers might chafe. Diplomatic energy in Paris contrasts with stasis in Berlin. Angela Merkel used to speak for Europe in Beijing. Since September she has been grounded — last week resuming the monthslong effort to secure a governing majority in the Bundestag after September’s election.

Sure, Germans have long complained about the absence of a serious partner in Paris — the hyperactive Sarkozy was followed by the best-do-nothing François Hollande. In truth, Berlin has grown accustomed to writing the EU’s agenda. Now, Macron has the stage to himself. Britain’s Theresa May has time for nothing save Brexit. Italy faces a messy election. Spain has been convulsed by the Catalan crisis.

As impregnable as she seemed only months ago, Merkel can no longer lay claim to the future.

Merkel’s Christian Democrats hope that last week’s talks will see Martin Schulz’s Social Democrats join another grand coalition. The negotiations may or may not succeed. Much will depend on the CSU, the Christian Democrats’ Bavarian sister party. Coalition or not, there has been an unmistakable change in the political zeitgeist.

As impregnable as she seemed only months ago, Merkel can no longer lay claim to the future. Whether she heads a coalition or a minority government, she is living in the twilight of her chancellorship. If the stars are favorably aligned she might see out a four-year term. Party colleagues doubt it. Two years seems a more likely timescale. Ambitious rivals are surreptitiously rehearsing for the succession contest.

The hyperenergetic Macron and the now hobbled Merkel hold up a mirror to their electorates. The president has a mandate for change, for the modernizing upheaval never delivered by Sarkozy. The overarching message of the German election was that voters want to hold on to the status quo.

Close to drowning in its fabled morosité, France took an unexpected gamble in choosing Macron. He promised national revival and, against all expectations, the voters gave him a chance. The polls have shown one or two wobbles since, but the prevailing winds are still behind him. The French are enjoying the favorable international reviews for their president.

German voters backed Merkel when she opened the nation’s borders to Syrian refugees in 2015. It was the right — the humanitarian — thing to do. But enough is enough. The chancellor was returned to office with only a conditional mandate. Nearly 13 percent of Germans backed the Islamophobia of the far-right Alternative for Germany. Mainstream politicians expressed shame, and then tilted rightward.

Nothing has changed since the chancellor remarked last summer that Trump’s angry nationalism requires Germany, and Europe, to shoulder more responsibility for their security. Merkel, though, neither sought nor secured a mandate for this more activist foreign policy. International affairs and Europe scarcely figured in the election campaign. She cannot now complain that Germany has turned inward.

Beyond favorable headlines, none of this is particularly good news for Macron. By temperament, Germans are pro-European. That is not to say they are ready to embrace France’s sweeping vision for deeper integration. Schulz is more or less out on his own in signing up to Macron’s program. Mention eurozone reform and the more usual response detects a plot to make Germany pay for others’ profligacy.

That said, it would be a mistake to imagine that the Macron blueprint will be torn up. The Germans have reasons of their own to press for deeper EU collaboration. Most obviously, Merkel needs an EU-wide agreement on asylum and refugees sufficiently robust to avoid a repetition of events in 2015.

Albeit reluctantly, Berlin has agreed to step up spending on defense. The European framework proposed by Paris is the obvious route. On the economic front, there is a serious German constituency in favor of French plans to align corporation taxes and spearhead European efforts to develop artificial intelligence technologies.

Everything, of course, depends on Macron’s capacity to push through domestic reforms. Even after his modernization of the labor code, there are Cassandras aplenty predicting reactionary France will reassert itself.

What the skeptics miss is the thing Macron has best understood — that modernization is as much about psychology as legislation. Germany is becoming a prisoner of its prosperity. France, strange though it seems to say, may be about to embrace the future.

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By Philip Stephens

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