“Tonight It Is Europe and the World Looking at Us…”
With the current success of populists and the fear of Frexit in mind, Emmanuel Macron’s victory at the French presidential elections was widely perceived as a critical turning point for Europe. But is the new French government able and willing to live up to the continent’s expectations? And what relevance does the rest of the world attribute to the election’s outcome? Ralph Weber comments on the French President’s victory speech.
At his victory speech on May 7, 2017, Emmanuel Macron displayed great determination as he addressed his French compatriots. He also made it a point to factor into his remarks the world at large and particularly Europe – most effectually by having the European anthem played at his entrance, thus underlining his “pro-European” position. Macron perhaps stands for a new, more globally oriented, English speaking type of French president. Yet, his message was not that France should dissipate into the new realities of a globalized world. The world, he announced, stands to profit immensely from taking France and its Enlightenment tradition seriously. So he said that “tonight it is Europe and the world looking at us” (ce soir, c’est l’Europe, c’est le Monde qui nous regarde). When Prof. Henrik Uterwedde (Deutsch-Französisches Institut, Ludwigsburg) spoke to us just after the election, this was one of the phrases he emphasized.
The French election captured unusual attention. Friends from the American Midwest told me how curious they were about the election in France, linking the election there to the events in their own country. In Europe, colleagues, haunted by the specter of populism and Frexit, declared the French election a critical turning point. Still, it is doubtful that Europe and the world were looking at France for inspiration (pace Macron who said that “Europe and the world … are expecting France, once again, to amaze them”), but rather for fear that a Le Pen victory might be the last straw to break the camel’s back. Macron’s win does of course in no way guarantee the camel’s well-being. As Prof. Uterwede stated, the next few months will prove critical, as Macron has to consolidate his power in the legislative election.
A further question is whether it is true that the entire world was watching. Or might Macron just be another case of Europe’s inability to understand it is no longer the center of global action. Take China as an example. Evan Medeiros, the former top Asia advisor of President Obama, put it most bluntly at his talk here in Basel: “China does not take the EU very seriously.” The lack of interest of Chinese media during the pre-election period corroborates this. The few reports conspicuously all sided against Marine Le Pen: Even the newspapers of the People’s Republic of China found her inappropriately “populist.” The only real interest, however, that popped up regarded the fate of the Euro. China, it seems, was watching the French election not closely and certainly not for inspiration, but for its implications on the world currency market and the power that goes with currency reserves and the setting of the terms of international trade.
Europe should not overestimate its position in today’s world. Macron might be right about the “spirit of the Enlightenment” and the importance of “bringing a new hope, a new humanism to the world,” but this can only succeed if an outdated understanding of Europe makes way for new and more realistic ways of perceiving the world and Europe’s place in it. There is still a huge gap between the normative values so dear to Europe and its own past and present failures to live up to them. In this regard, the most important words Macron uttered in his speech were: “Europe and the world … expect us to be finally ourselves” – which should be read alongside Langston Hughes’s famous poem Let America Be America Again and its final line asking to “make America again” (really the opposite of “make America great again”!), but substituting “America” with “France” and “Europe” while aiming at the world at large.
Ralph Weber is Assistant Professor of European Global Studies at the Institute for European Global Studies. In his research, he is most interested in methodological and conceptual aspects of translinguistic and transcultural research, comparative philosophy, Chinese political philosophy, Chinese politics, and Confucianism.
This article was first published in the Institute’s latest newsletter.