Reformer, peacemaker or lame duck - will the real Emmanuel Macron emerge in 2023?

War in Ukraine and domestic reform battle are likely to dominate the French President's year

Emmanuel Macron's re-election joy in April was marred by his loss of a parliamentary majority in June. AFP
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In happier times, Emmanuel Macron could be entering 2023 with the wind in his sails.

His job is safe until 2027 after his re-election victory last spring, setting him on track to be France’s most durable president since Jacques Chirac.

His recent state visit to the White House cemented his position as Europe’s pre-eminent leader.

Yet the crises engulfing Europe threaten to give Mr Macron a year of headaches at home and abroad.

France’s labour unions are determined to give him a bloody nose as he tries to trim the pension budget.

Mr Macron’s eagerness for diplomacy with Moscow has won him few friends in Central and Eastern Europe.

And even leaders who should be natural allies, Italy, Germany and the UK, have various bones to pick with France.

Emmanuel Macron's 2022 — in pictures

Domestic agenda

Mr Macron has wanted for years to increase France’s pension age to stop the welfare budget from ballooning out of control.

He plans to renew that effort in 2023, with details of a pension overhaul to be unveiled in January.

But his party lacks a majority in the National Assembly and unions have vowed to mobilise if the pension reforms go ahead.

“The trade unions want to make this a major social conflict. They want to make a big show of it,” Paul Smith, a French politics expert at the UK's University of Nottingham, told The National.

“I think the other parties also will make want to make some kind of hay while the sun shines, certainly on the far left and the far right.”

Whether the centre-right Republicans will lend Mr Macron the votes to cobble together a majority on pensions remains to be seen. Their new hardline leader, Eric Ciotti, has ruled out any formal alliance.

Although Mr Macron can sometimes get around parliament with decrees, they expose him to charges of undemocratic behaviour, while calling new elections would be a huge gamble.

The hung parliament could make it harder for Mr Macron to tackle other items on the domestic agenda, such as transport and health care.

A recent bronchiolitis outbreak strained France’s health system, and hospitals have been hit by labour shortages.

Mr Macron has called for an overhaul of local train services modelled on the suburban RER network in Paris.

Energy is another conundrum, after France’s nuclear power grid was plagued by maintenance problems just as Europe faced a power squeeze.

The cost-of-living crisis caused by the energy crunch is only worsening France’s industrial unrest.

Mr Macron’s first term was marred by the Yellow Vest protests that widened from a revolt over fuel prices into months of violence.

The nuclear problems have also limited France’s ability to export electricity to Germany and Britain.

“The process of updating the nuclear option hasn’t taken place. That’s not Macron’s fault — it’s a long-term structural problem — but it’s Macron’s problem,” Mr Smith said.

Emmanuel Macron's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne will have to steer the pension reform through parliament. AFP

Foreign policy

France’s constitution gives the President a freer hand in foreign policy, and Mr Macron has made the most of it during the war in Ukraine.

What once seemed a quixotic hobby horse, Mr Macron’s dream of a more strategically potent Europe, is now much talked about in Brussels.

Never tired of throwing himself into diplomatic initiatives, he is more willing than many to keep lines of communication open with Moscow.

But Mr Macron has twice put his foot in it by showing too much sympathy to the Kremlin for the liking of some allies.

After saying in June that Russia should not be humiliated, he suggested in December that Moscow should be given “security guarantees” in a postwar settlement.

Rym Momtaz, a Macron watcher at the UK's International Institute of Strategic Studies, said recently that Mr Macron aspires to be the man who brokers peace in Ukraine.

“The French President, like other western leaders, is starting to worry about the long-term consequences of this war dragging on much, much longer,” she told an IISS panel.

Emmanuel Macron's last-ditch visit to Moscow in February failed to prevent the invasion of Ukraine. AFP

But she said his position was weakened by France’s lukewarm military support for Ukraine, which she called a missed chance to convince Eastern Europe it could look to France as well as the US as a security partner.

Aside from Ukraine, Mr Macron has trouble brewing on his southern border as Italy plays hardball over migration.

Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, put down an early marker by diverting a Mediterranean rescue ship into French waters, enraging Paris.

The energy crisis has exposed cracks in France’s alliance with Germany, weakening what is known as the engine of Europe.

And although the tone of UK-France relations has improved, English Channel migration has the potential to be politically explosive on both shores.

Joint summits with Britain and Germany early in 2023 are key for those alliances.

Mr Smith said Mr Macron, who oversaw the founding of a new pan-European community in Prague, hoped to be a “first among equals” in Europe.

“Macron can certainly try to cast himself as the strong man on the international stage, to reiterate his idea that France is back,” he said. “The problem with the external challenges is that it doesn’t win you very much support at home.”

Updated: December 30, 2022, 6:00 PM
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