France assumed the rotating six-month presidency of the EU Council at the start of this month, and it marked the occasion by unfurling the bloc's Blue and Gold flag under the Arc de Triomphe. It was a short-lived gesture, curtailed by the furious reaction from Emmanuel Macron's political adversaries. In a normal year Macron would have ignored the hullabaloo but the French go to the polls in April and centre-right voters are key to deciding the outcome.
The timing of France's presidency is awkward for Macron, despite the fact it's a dream role for a leader whose faith in the EU still burns bright. Millions of his compatriots don't share his enthusiasm for Brussels and, while Frexit remains a minority ambition, what won't go down well is the impression that their president is more interested in grandstanding on the world stage than addressing the many domestic ills, such as rising crime and rocketing energy prices.
Macron, however, does not appear to be listening. Last week he made a grandiose address to the European Parliament in which he advocated the EU taking a more prominent role in solving the crisis on the Russian-Ukraine border. “We should build as Europeans working with other Europeans and with Nato and then propose it for negotiation with Russia,” he told MEPs in Strasbourg, “It is good that Europeans and the United States co-ordinate, but it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue.”
Macron also touched on the EU's relationship with Britain in his Strasbourg address, although his tone was less conciliatory than it was towards Putin's Russia. "Let’s be tough," he said, when referring to ongoing negotiations over the terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, specifically fishing rights and the Northern Ireland protocol. "The conditions of agreements entered into have to be respected," added Macron. "That's the way to remain friends.”
But Macron and Britain have never been friends. This most fervent of Europhiles just can't understand why any country would wish to leave the EU; the tragedy is that Macron has allowed this incomprehension to cloud his judgement.
The two countries could have formed a powerful partnership post-Brexit, economically and militarily, but Macron's objective when he entered the Elysée in 2017 was to punish Britain for having the audacity to leave the EU. By pursuing this policy in the last five years he has failed to see the damage that Germany has inflicted on the EU and particularly France. Like so many French politicians, Macron he has been schooled to believe that Germany is only ever a force for good. But as Angela Merkel demonstrated time and again, notably with the Nord-Stream 2 pipeline, Germany only ever does what's best for Germany.
Macron's opportunity to address the EU parliament was a welcome respite for a president who is under increasing pressure domestically. An opinion poll at the weekend revealed that his approval rating has dropped by four points this month, the biggest fall in nearly a year. The primary reason is his mishandling of the Covid crisis, a crisis that unlike Britain's, shows no sign of abating despite the stringent restrictions that are now in place, including from today a Vaccine Passport that shuts out from society anyone who is not triple-jabbed.
A restlessness is spreading across France, which should worry Macron. Furthermore, an increasing number of people - from political opponents to doctors - are drawing unfavourable comparisons with Britain. Why, they ask, has life returned to normal across the Channel while in France liberty has been sacrificed in the name of safety? For an Anglophobe such as Macron, that is an uncomfortable question to answer.