The visit to Paris by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and 26 commissioners was meant to signal the shining start of France’s six-month presidency of the European Union.
But French president Emmanuel Macron upstaged himself. In an interview published by Le Parisien on Wednesday, he said he would do his utmost to make life difficult for those who refuse to be vaccinated against Covid-19. He has said similar things before, but this time Mr Macron used the verb “emmerder” – whose root, “merdre”, is vulgar French for excrement.
Former prime minister of France Georges Pompidou used “emmerder” in a famous quote in 1966. The word is common usage and hardly obscene. But Mr Macron’s opponents feigned outrage. The controversy took on enormous proportions. A stormy debate on the law ushering in a new vaccination pass had to be suspended, though the law finally passed.
Everyone has an opinion about “emmerder”. No one seemed to notice the imminent arrival of the EU Commission. Mr Macron’s supporters praised his “directness”. Detractors accused him of speaking contemptuously of the unvaccinated. His remark was reportedly a deliberate strategy to show up contradictions within the conservative party Les Républicains, and to confront the extreme right, which defends anti-vaxxers.
It may be an astute move by Mr Macron, since 90 per cent of the French are vaccinated.
The president is a fervent proponent of vaccination. He has also taken the riskier gamble of portraying himself as France’s most ardent European. Both issues will be staples of his re-election campaign. He must be doing something right, because an Ifop-Fiducial poll shows him surpassing all contenders by at least nine points in the first round of the election on April 10th, and defeating his nearest rivals, Valérie Pécresse of Les Républicains or the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, by 10 or 18 points respectively in the April 24th run-off.
Blue and gold light
When the College of Commissioners arrived for dinner at the Élysée on Thursday night, they found the presidential palace bathed in blue and gold light, the colours of the EU flag. The Panthéon, which they will visit on Friday morning to pay homage to Jean Monnet and Simone Veil, two great French-Europeans, is one of a dozen monuments lit in EU colours all week.
The flying of the EU flag, sans the French tricolour, at the Arc de Triomphe last weekend provoked an outcry. Ms Von der Leyen sided with Mr Macron against his domestic opponents. “It is good and important that the French presidency chose to fly the colours of Europe, ” she told France Inter radio on Thursday. “We were really thrilled to see the European flag flying on great monuments . . . Without France, the EU would never have reached where it is today.”
The scale of Mr Macron’s ambitions for Europe is dizzying. France has launched negotiations on 250 texts and plans 400 events over the next six months, an adviser at the Élysée said.
Asked what Mr Macron and Ms Von der Leyen will discuss in their 75-minute meeting on Friday morning, the adviser said there will be three main themes: sovereign Europe; a new European growth model; and “human” Europe.
Mr Macron and his advisers talk in university-like headings and subheadings, so much so that one gets lost in the numbers. Sovereign Europe had six subheadings: reform of the Schengen rules on freedom of movement; protection of exterior borders; mastery of migration and political asylum; the “Europe of defence”; and stabilising and bringing prosperity to Africa and the Balkans.
The European growth model had four subheadings: transforming Europe into a “great continent of production, innovation and the creation of quality jobs”, the subject of a March 10th-11th summit; climate, digital and social issues. The latter include negotiations on a European minimum wage.
On climate, the French are thrilled that the EU is on the verge of recognising their resurgent nuclear power programme as a low-carbon energy source. Under the digital rubric, Paris intends to finalise two long-cherished pieces of regulation, the Digital Markets Act, which fights tech monopolies, and the Digital Services Act, which addresses illegal content.
Under “human Europe”, the presidential adviser listed the rule of law – a big issue with Hungary and Poland – the battle against discrimination and new cultural projects including support for independent journalism, a European academy bringing together intellectuals from 27 member states, the creation of an independent committee on the history of Europe and a European civic service.
That is merely the beginning of the topics Mr Macron intends to broach with Ms Von der Leyen, along with revision of the Stability and Growth Pact and relations with the UK.
Since the British negotiator David Frost was replaced by foreign secretary Liz Truss on December 19th, the adviser said, Britain has ceased threatening to invoke article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol.