French President Emmanuel Macron is addressing the European Parliament about his plans for reforms of the EU. But it remains to be seen whether it can convince the French and other Europeans of its pro-European ideas.
The Sorbonne University in Paris is a place with symbolic power. It was often the main stage for France's student movements, for instance that of 1968. French President Emmanuel Macron hopes it will be a launching pad as well. It was here that he delivered a speech proposing wide-reaching reforms for Europe last year.
It's a Saturday afternoon, in early April. Some 50 people are gathered on a square in front of the university to see those proposals become a reality. They are there to start the so-called "March for Europe." The action is designed to let people know what Europe can do for them. And, of course, it is also supposed to help the governing La Republique En Marche (LREM) party win European elections in May 2019. Still, the march to Brussels will be anything but easy.
Gilles Le Gendres' eyes are gleaming with enthusiasm. He is the LREM representative from Paris' 5th arrondissement and he is a staunch European. "Everyone said we were crazy when we launched the En Marche movement two years ago," he tells DW.
"We were the only party that saw Europe as an opportunity. It was if we were the tiny Gallic village in which [comic figures] Asterix and Obelix were putting up resistance. But we won that crazy bet and presidency along with it!"
The real fight, however, is just getting started. "We are at a critical fork in the road: We can only make our dream of a better, reformed Europe a reality if we can get the French and many more of Europe's 450 million citizens to join us."
First France, then Europe
The party plans to do that by first asking French citizens what they think is good about Europe and what they think is bad. The small group here in the chic 5th arrondissement is just one of 1,000 across the country that are going door to door in order to have voters fill out a small questionnaire via smartphone app. "What isn't working in Europe?" and "Does Europe influence your everyday life?" are just two of the questions respondents are being asked to answer.
The march is scheduled to last for five weeks. The party will also be organizing informations events. The initiative is to be expanded to include discussions across the rest of Europe from May to October. "All 27 member states have promised to participate – even Euroskeptic Hungary," says Le Gendre.
Macron sent in high-level representatives to kick off the campaign: 10 of his ministers are appearing at different events across the country today. Marlene Schiappa has joined our group — she is the state secretary for gender equality. "It is important to hear what moves people and to include their wishes when it comes to reforms — only then will they be able to identify with Europe," she tells DW in an interview.
Schiappa is convinced that the dream of a better Europe is within reach. Though she declines to answer the question of whether German Chancellor Angela Merkel will block European reforms. "First we are going to ask the French what they think," she says.
Put an end to Europe bashing
"Of course, Macron will not achieve everything he put forth in his Sorbonne speech," says Nicolas Tenzer, who heads the political think tank CERAP. Among the initiatives the president proposed during that speech was the idea of a eurozone budget with its own finance minister and administration. Tenzer says, "Still, we will certainly be able to find a good compromise, like a mini-eurozone administration for instance."
The march is important in order to achieve such goals. "If we can convey the positive values of Europe, then Europeans will be more enthusiastic about the project. Then we can combat rightwing populism. And we can finally put an end to all of this Europe bashing."
We meet 34-year-old Pierre-Antoine Colombani in a hallway. He is an asset manager and is more than happy to answer State Secretary Schiappa's questions. She has been at the march for more than an hour and a half — and has been in government for an eternity. Colombani is clearly pro-European: "We need it to represent our interests, for instance when it comes to trade with China," he says. Nevertheless, he doesn't think the march alone will be enough to convince people: "We need a much broader information campaign to really get something done."
Enthusiasm for Macron on the wane
Remi Bourgeot, economist and Europe expert at the Paris think tank IRIS, is skeptical, too. He says the French live in a parallel universe. "People have this fantasy that France and Germany want the same thing when it comes to Europe. Yet, it is crystal clear that Merkel will never vote for most of the reform proposals," he says.
That reality is something that has also come to be accepted by international experts as well. "After Macron's election, many people really believed in him. I was the only one to exclaim that European reforms had little chance of passing when I participated in panel discussions. Meanwhile, even the normally optimistic Italians have lost faith in the concept of major reforms."
But the group of Europe fans at the Sorbonne wants nothing of such pessimism. "Of course, many of the people we talked to today were very critical," says one participant. "But by listening to them, we show that we are taking their concerns seriously. I really think that we will be able to convince them in the long run."