Macron's domestic travails to sap European leadership

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Emmanuel Macron's loss of his overall majority risks further weakening European leadership, with the French leader set to be distracted by domestic troubles even while retaining formal control over foreign policy.

The loss of the majority in parliamentary elections Sunday represented a major personal blow for Macron as he seeks a springboard for reform after winning a second term in April.

His first presidential term from 2017 had been marked by France positioning itself as a major player on the global stage. Many observers see Macron as Europe's number one figure in the wake of Brexit and the departure of German chancellor Angela Merkel.

But the parliamentary election debacle caps a tricky period for Macron in recent weeks following his presidential triumph over the far right, which fans celebrated as a victory for the democratic centre against populism.

A heavy-handed police crackdown at the Champions League football final in Paris dented France's reputation abroad and raised questions over its ability to host events.

Macron faced accusations he did not want Ukraine to defeat Russia in its fight against the invasion, after arguing that the West should take care not to humiliate Moscow.

And while the president in theory retains full control over foreign policy, there will now be weeks of political horsetrading that will take the lustre off his reputation as an indispensable European leader.

- 'Possible weakening' -

"The results of the legislative elections affect the political credibility of the president" said Thierry Chopin, special adviser at the Institute Jacques Delors. This "has a negative impact on his influence on the European scene", he added.

"From a strictly institutional point of view, European issues remain the strong prerogative of the president.

"But if the president is prevented from carrying out structural reforms expected by European partners, this could have a negative effect," he told AFP.

A particular blow for a president who prides himself as being an anti-populist champion was the success of the far right, which under their resurgent leader Marine Le Pen now boast 89 seats in the National Assembly.

"We see trends in other member states of the European Union where a number of forces tend to destroy the EU from within", said Tara Varma of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

Le Pen is herself eyeing control of the parliament's finance committee, and members of her National Rally (RN) could also play a role on its powerful foreign affairs committee.

"There will be a lot of business with groups that are not known for their European sympathy, it will give rise to lively exchanges," said Pascale Joanin of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

Paolo Mattera, a professor of contemporary history at the Universita Roma Tre in the Italian capital, said a change in France's foreign policy was "likely impossible" but a weakening was now "possible".

"Macron hoped to entrust domestic politics to a trusted prime minister to devote himself to international politics," Mattera said.

But Macron now risks devoting "a lot of time and energy to domestic issues, to the detriment of foreign policy", he said.

- Draghi centre stage -

Europe now finds itself short of national leaders with the charisma and political space to champion its values on the global stage.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has faced a difficult start to his tenure, dogged by complaints that Berlin's support for Ukraine has not been sufficient.

The vacuum gives extra prominence to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the former European Central Bank chief who, like Macron, is seen as a bulwark against populism.

Draghi accompanied the French leader and Scholz on a trip to Kyiv last week.

"The case can be made that the anti-establishment is once again on the rise, and this would of course be bad news for Draghi, who is the quintessential embodiment of the establishment," said analysts at the Policy Sonar risk consulting firm in Rome.

"On the other hand, with Macron somewhat crippled, Draghi gains centre stage at EU level in the months to come," they said.


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