France's term at the helm of the EU was quickly embroiled in domestic politics as President Emmanuel Macron’s rivals turned on him over the display of a giant European flag in Paris.
The blue-and-yellow banner was hung from the Arc de Triomphe, the capital’s most famous war memorial, to mark the start of France’s six-month EU presidency on New Year’s Day.
The move drew anger from politicians on the right who complained of a loss of French identity – a frequent accusation from Mr Macron’s rivals as April’s presidential election draws nearer.
It comes with Mr Macron tipped to use the EU presidency as a platform for his undeclared re-election campaign.
Valerie Pecresse, Mr Macron’s main challenger on the centre-right, told him to add a French flag to the Paris display in tribute to “our soldiers who spilled our blood for it”.
“Presiding over Europe – yes, erasing French identity – no,” she said.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally, said the display showed an “arrogant contempt for our history” and called it an “attack on the identity of our country”.
Although she suggested that the French flag had been replaced with the EU colours, it is not the case that the national tricolour is permanently on display at the war memorial.
Eric Zemmour, a TV pundit and another far-right candidate who entered the race in November, described the installation as an insult.
By Sunday, the EU flag had been removed from the Arc de Triomphe, although European Affairs Minister Clement Beaune denied that this was done in response to the right-wing outcry.
Mr Beaune accused the president’s critics of “desperately chasing after sterile controversies of the far right”.
“We embrace Europe, but that doesn’t take anything away from our French identity,” he told France Inter radio.
The Eiffel Tower was similarly lit up in EU colours to mark the handover from Slovenia to France, which assumed the rotating presidency for the first time since 2008.
Mr Macron wants to use it to push for a “sovereign Europe” with action on carbon pricing, tech regulation, minimum wages and relations with Africa.
An advocate of more defence co-operation in Europe, he takes on the role with the bloc’s de facto leadership up for grabs after the retirement of long-dominant German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“Faced with health and economic challenges, the rise of aggressive powers and climate change, the best response is a European one,” Mr Macron said in a message to mark the start of the French presidency.
But his rivals on the right accuse him of overseeing national decline and ceding too much influence to the EU. Ms Le Pen described Mr Macron as nurturing a “fantasy of a super-state”.
Opponents have accused Mr Macron of electioneering and say he should have delayed France’s turn until after the two-round election in April.
Although Mr Macron is waiting until the last moment to formally declare his intentions, a string of media appearances and continuing fund-raising efforts by his party mean it is widely assumed that he will seek a second term.
Polls suggest he would be the favourite to beat any of his main rivals in the second round, although they predict a close race if Ms Pecresse reaches the run-off.
Manon Aubry, a leftist member of the European Parliament, said the row over the EU flag had obscured serious discussion about how the presidency was being “instrumentalised by Macron for electoral ends”.
“Macron does not give a hoot and is simply using it as a campaign vehicle,” she said.