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Macron makes his mark in Germany ahead of meeting with Merkel

Pascal Pavani, AFP | French presidential election candidate for the En Marche ! movement Emmanuel Macron, behind the flag of the European Union, gestures during his campaign's last rally in Albi, southwestern France, on May 4, 2017.
Text by: Tracy MCNICOLL
6 min

French President Emmanuel Macron arrived in Berlin on Monday to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his first official visit, just over 24 hours after being inaugurated in Paris.


Visiting Germany on their first official trip has become de rigueur among French presidents, and Macron is the veteran chancellor’s fourth French counterpart since she took office in 2005. Jacques Chirac had been in power for a decade when Merkel became chancellor, but since then the freshly elected conservative Nicolas Sarkozy (in 2007), the Socialist François Hollande (2012) and now the independent centrist Macron have all chosen to make Merkel their first foreign audience.

And yet the zeitgeist after Macron’s triumph is different. The heart-on-his-sleeve Europhile was elected May 7 in a landslide against National Front firebrand Marine Le Pen, thereby slaying an arch Europhobe dragon, at least for a time. On the evening of his election, Macron walked to an outdoor stage to greet supporters at the Louvre Museum to the strains of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, the European Union’s anthem, setting Europhile hearts aflutter across the bloc.

Macron’s campaign platform had included calls for a eurozone budget as well as a finance and economy minister for the subset of EU countries that use the euro currency. He also campaigned for a Buy European Act and for more European integration on defense and security. Supporters at his rallies could often be seen waving blue-and-yellow EU flags alongside the French tricolour.

German newspapers welcomed Macron’s election, and his defeat of Le Pen, in giddy tones. “France says yes to Europe,” Bild headlined. “Macron wins it for Europe,” the financial daily Handelsblatt splashed on its front page. “No Frexit” proclaimed the leftist Neues Deutschland.

The left-leaning Tageszeitung issued a French-language “Ouf” across its front page (translation: “Phew”). “Confidence and hope won over systematic pessimism and defeatism,” the paper said. Die Welt had headlined “Vive la France!” and proclaimed that the newly elected president had “on his own, with enormous political courage, saved the EU”. The newspaper added, “The French part of the European motor will once again be able to function at full capacity” if Macron manages to win a majority in the key June legislative elections.

Merkel spoke with Macron just minutes after his election, praising his commitment to the EU. She applauded Macron’s “courageous pro-European campaign” and “magnificent victory” to reporters in Berlin. She told them Macron “carries the hope of millions of French people, but also many in Germany and all across Europe”. She added, “I wish him, as well as the French, all the success imaginable.”

But after the initial applause, some conservative politicians and media in Germany have appeared to pull back somewhat, criticising the new French leader’s plans for Europe and just how much they may cost Germany if the European powerhouse is called on to prop up weaker neighbours. Der Spiegel featured Macron on its cover with the headline “Our dear friend” – using "dear" as in expensive – in a country where a balanced budget, or Schwarze Null, is sometimes seen as an end in itself.

Jean Pisani-Ferry, the Macron campaign’s economic programme coordinator and the founder of Brussels think tank Bruegel, reacted to the cover on Twitter, saying, “Very German obsession. And strange disconnect from reality. No, @EmmanuelMacron does not want a check from Germany.”

“My wish is that this issue is not used in the [German] election campaign, but that we have a serious discussion over the question: ‘What is more important to us? The Schwarze Null as a categoric imperative or the future of Europe?” German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, who chairs the Munich Security Conference, told Reuters on Monday. “If compromises are necessary and make sense, then I would support compromise rather than categorical imperatives.”

Hours before the chancellor’s meeting with Macron, Merkel’s spokesman warned against reading too much into some of the more alarmist headlines in the German press. Steffen Seibert said Merkel would “meet [Macron] with great openness”, adding: “It is in Germany’s interest for Macron to succeed.”

It must be said the committed European integrationist Macron has sent encouraging signals across the Rhine. The political neophyte, who also travelled to Berlin to meet with Merkel during his election campaign, on Sunday named polyglot career diplomat Philippe Etienne as his diplomatic “sherpa”. Etienne served as France’s ambassador to Berlin starting in 2014 after five years in Brussels.

“With this nomination, Macron addresses a strong signal to Berlin, where Etienne is very much appreciated, at once in the ranks of Angela Merkel’s CDU as well as among the other parties,” the French financial daily Les Echos opined. “A former French permanent representative to the EU in Brussels, he has a perfect mastery of European but also international dossiers, as he proved during the Ukrainian crisis.”

“This is very good news. Philippe is an authority on EU affairs and a promoter of Franco-German friendship,” tweeted Martin Selmayr, cabinet chief to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

After Macron named centre-right parliamentarian Édouard Philippe as his prime minister on Monday, the founding director of the Jacques Delors Institute – Berlin noted that Philippe, too, is fluent in German, a matter of importance in Berlin.

For her part, Chancellor Merkel seems willing to keep an open mind. “We will do everything not only to help France but also to shape the European path with France,” she said in Aachen on Saturday.

“Germany’s future lies in Europe. Germany will only do well in the long run if Europe does well,” Merkel told reporters on Monday. “And the election of the new French president offers us here the possibility to bring dynamism into the development of Europe.”

At least for now, the honeymoon continues in Berlin.   

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