On Saturday, a single, large blue-and-gold EU flag was fluttering under the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, to mark the first day of France’s six-month stint holding the rotating presidency of the European Union. On Sunday night, the flag was down, symbolising, depending on who you listen to, either a forced political climbdown heralding the early demise of Emmanuel Macron’s grand hopes for said presidency, or just business as usual.
Predictably, the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen, a lawyer by profession, submitted the case against the flag to the Council of State, having first tweeted against what she saw as the “outrage” to France’s patriotic dead of having a “foreign” flag hanging over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Eric Zemmour, the maverick conservative journalist turned presidential candidate, followed with a Tacitean epigram (“Après le saccage et l’empaquetage, l’outrage”), referring to the gilets jaunes’ graffitiing of the monument and its subsequent “wrapping” by the artist Christo.
A few hours later, Valérie Pécresse, the Républicain (centre-Right) candidate, followed suit: “Yes to a French presidency over Europe, no to the erasure of French identity! We owe it to all citizens who shed their blood for France.” By that time Twitter was ablaze with pointed reminders that the last time another flag flew down from the Arc, it was the swastika in 1940.
For the past two decades, the blue-and-gold flag has hung next to the tricolour on all official buildings. It was the absence of the French flag that riled many, as well as the highly symbolic location. (The Eiffel Tower turned blue and gold on New Year’s Day, and nobody batted an eyelid; but then, as Paris hosted the final of the 2016 European Football cup, the Tower turned green and red to celebrate Portugal’s victory.)
Macron’s spin doctors went into overdrive trying to paint the episode as a cunning plan to draw the president’s competitors into time-wasting “sterile arguments” while France was engaging on an important European half-year. Clément Beaune, the former Elysée adviser turned Europe minister, said the flag was always meant to fly over the weekend only.
At this stage, you may well ask if any of this really matters. A blood-warming polemic on the flag is a nice change from the bi-weekly press conferences on omicron stats and increasingly bizarre anti-Covid measures taken by a bureaucratic class not so much gone into mission creep as full-speed gallop. (The French may drink sitting down in cafés but not standing up; they can go to bars but not dance there, etc.)
Yet, for Macron, at whose 2017 campaign rallies European flags invariably got handed out together with the tricolours, the presidency of the EU is meant to be the mainstay of his re-election bid. This is a risky tactic. The French still feel very European, with more than two-thirds identifying with European culture and traditions. However, a desperate Macron can hardly be unaware of the growing unpopularity of Brussels: all polls show the French to be almost as sceptical as the British when it comes to European institutions.
The president’s ambitious plans for the next six months mostly aim to establish a French political leadership – as Germany’s new Chancellor Olaf Scholz tries to find his feet – as well as to confirm the country’s military pre-eminence now that Britain has left the bloc. Over the three months before the election, this is meant to be sold to the French public with lashings of grandeur, the lofty prestige invoked by Charles de Gaulle that still resonates half a century later.
Macron’s vision includes “strategic autonomy” for Europe, with ambitious goals that aim to fill the gap created by Joe Biden’s lack of international purpose. Two weeks ago, in a conversation with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, he promised to “help Ukraine preserve its sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Macron is also seen as one of the movers towards the Commission’s projected ruling tagging nuclear energy as “green” – opposed by several EU members, including Germany and Austria. Significantly, as part of his great plan for France last autumn, he announced the building of six next-generation small nuclear plants to maintain the country’s cheap and abundant electricity supply. By contrast, on the last day of 2021, Germany decommissioned the same number of working nuclear plants.
In all of this, Macron has the majority of the French behind him, just as they approve of his plans, during the French presidency, of creating a pan-European tax on the GAFA, the high-tech giants. The question is whether, in his eagerness to make his European mark, preferably before April 7, his assertive, not to say brusque style, will win him enough friends in Brussels.
The projected measures the French like most are the ones that are least attractive to the compromise-addicted Eurocrats; and the ones Brussels favours, such as a carbon tax at the continent’s borders, have caused revolts in France very recently.
I’m not sure Macron’s all-European gamble will be enough to keep him in the Élysée.