Muted Macron welcomes 2022 as crucial for Europe in speech without surprises

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  • Emmanuel Macron
    Emmanuel Macron
    President of France

France took over the rotating presidency of the European Union at midnight on Saturday, affording President Emmanuel Macron the chance to pose as the EU's de facto leader in the run-up to national elections due in April. In his televised New Year's address, the French president made no direct reference to his intention to compete for a second five-year stint as national leader.

"The year 2022 must be a turning point for Europe," President Macron said in a New Year's Eve address.

Referring to the French EU presidency, he promised that "you can count on my complete commitment to ensure that this period, which comes around every 13 years, is a time of progress for you".

The centrist, who made his Europhile views a key part of his political campaign when winning the presidency in 2017, is hoping it will again serve him in elections scheduled for April 10 and 24.

"The EU presidency gives him a welcome platform to put his European record to the forefront and differentiate himself from his rivals and bring new proposals, new ideas to the table," said Claire Demesmay, an expert at the Marc-Bloch think-tank in Berlin.

"The French like nothing more than the image or impression of France being at the controls," said Pierre Sellal, a former French diplomat at the French mission to the European Union.

To mark the start of the six-month presidency, France illuminated historic buildings across the country including the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in the blue of the EU flag on New Year's Eve.

Other observers have noted that the French logo for the presidency includes the letters U and E for "Union Europeene" with a grey arrow in the middle that appears to create another letter -- a sideways M for Macron.

Opportunities and risks

Although the French presidency of the EU, the first since 2008, offers opportunities for Macron, it is also seen by observers as holding risks.

His agenda to make Europe "powerful" -- in defence, technology and border security -- risks being overshadowed in the short term by the accelerating Covid-19 health crisis.

Sebastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute, a pro-EU think-tank based in Paris, says Macron will also face pressure to deliver after having ramped up expectations.

"He can't get to the first round of the presidential election on 10 April without having obtained some results from the European presidency," Maillard said. "That's the challenge for him, but it can also be a real opportunity."

European leaders are set to meet in Paris on March 10-11, which could be a chance for them to agree on a major reform of the bloc's budget rules.

Much will depend on Germany's new chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose coalition government is seen as sceptical on budget reforms, but supportive of Macron's agenda.

Other European leaders such as Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whom Macron labelled a "political opponent" in December, might be in no mood to bolster the French leader's chances of re-election.

Dangerous balancing act

As symbolic head of the European Council, Macron will have to walk a fine line as he also launches his campaign for re-election, which is expected to be announced formally in February at the latest.

France's partners could be expected to take a dim view of attempts to instrumentalise the EU presidency for electoral reasons.

Domestically, opponents have already accused Macron of electioneering and say he should have delayed France's turn at the helm until after the elections.

"It's a mistake. He's doing it for his own interests, not those of France," his rightwing rival Valerie Pecresse from the Republicans party said last month.

Eurosceptic opponents such as far-right figures Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour will also waste no opportunity to portray the whole exercise as meaningless.

"It's been four-and-a-half years that he's been in power and he's obtained nothing and done nothing in the European domain, apart from achieving a sort of submission to Germany in the name of the Franco-German couple," National Rally leader Le Pen said in a radio interview.

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