1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Sorbonne speech: Will Macron's European plea be heard?

Lisa Louis in Paris
April 25, 2024

French President Emmanuel Macron has called for a paradigm shift in a Paris speech on European integration. That might not necessarily inspire voters at home. DW's Lisa Louis reports from Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron gestures as he delivers a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 25, 2024.
Macron used his speech at the Sorbonne to deliver a renewed plea for more European cooperationImage: Christophe Petit Tesson/AP Photo/picture alliance

French President Emmanuel Macron mentioned the word "paradigm" roughly 20 times in a speech pushing for more European integration Thursday.

"We have a rendezvous with history — Europe could die," Macron warned, standing in front of hundreds of listeners in the amphitheater of the Paris Sorbonne, one of Europe's oldest universities.

The president called for more European integration; a new, common commercial industry and a proper European defense strategy — possibly with its own missile defense shield.

"It's crucial that Russia doesn't win the war in Ukraine [which Moscow started with an invasion two years ago] — European security is at stake," he said.

"Europe can only be strong if it's prosperous [...] and we need to stop being naive, and better protect our industries," Macron added.

The president called for a system of "European preference" in five sectors of excellence: AI, quantum technologies, space technology, biotechnology and new energies.

How will other EU member states react?

For Sophie Pornschlegel, director of studies at the Brussels-based think tank Europe Jacques Delors, Macron was picking up on a theme he pitched seven years ago in his first Europe speech at the Sorbonne — in which he had called for more "European sovereignty."

"Macron has a good nose for what's relevant in politics. He understands how Europe works and is right to say more cooperation and integration are needed — that's the only way to defend Europe's interests," she said, adding that it was good that one of Europe's main leaders was taking such a pro-European stance.

"It will be interesting to see how other EU members react — will they pick up some of his ideas?" she wondered.

Macron calls for European defense strategy: DW's Lisa Louis

The presidential Elysee Palace underlined in a recent press briefing that more European sovereignty had indeed been attained since 2017. "Under the initiative of France, the EU stood united in support of Ukraine, we came up with joint industrial and technological policies and have changed our view on free-trade agreements to better protect European industries," a spokesman said.

"It's normal for France to make a contribution to the EU's next strategic agenda," the spokesman added. The five-year road map will be discussed by member states in late June.

Pornschlegel agrees with that take — to a degree.

"Some of his 2017 propositions weren't achieved — such as a eurozone budget and much stronger tax cooperation — but at least Macron has new ideas for Europe, as opposed to other countries, such as Germany, that are just blocking things," she said.

'Not just a European speech'

But Benjamin Morel, a political scientist and lecturer for public law at Paris-Pantheon-Assas University, doubts Macron was only speaking in anticipation of the new strategic agenda.

"Europe is one of Macron's core issues — he's aiming to boost his party's currently bleak prospects ahead of this June's EU parliamentary elections," he told DW.

Current polls predict that Valerie Hayer, the candidate for the president's Renaissance party, will take about 16% of the vote — compared to roughly 30% for Jordan Bardella of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN). Moreover, the socialist-centrist candidate Raphael Glucksmann is right on Hayer's heels.

"A poor result in the EU elections would turn his mandate into a lame duck presidency and destroy what's left of his authority," Morel stressed.

Less then a third of French voters currently have a favorable opinion of President Macron, according to the latest polls.

"But I doubt Macron's speech today will have filled French voters with enthusiasm," said Morel.

Fears of populist surge ahead of 2024 EU elections

Catherine Fieschi, a visiting fellow at the Florence-based European University Institute's Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies and author of the book "Populocracy," seconded that view.

"It's very peculiar because according to opinion polls, most of the French are pro-European and strongly oppose a Frexit, i.e., France leaving the EU," she told DW.

"But they also seem to take Europe and the euro for granted and many of them have no problem voting for the very anti-European RN," she added.

To Fieschi, today's speech didn't feel like a campaign event.

"He was taking stock of what had been done in Europe and saying we needed to do much better — but he wasn't speaking to French voters," she said.

If the current trend continues unabated, the RN could win more seats in the European Parliament than in 2019, when the party took 23% of the vote.

With other far-right movements across Europe also polling strongly, the nationalist block "Identity and Democracy" could overtake Macron's EU group Renew, currently the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament and one that is extremely influential when it comes to EU decisions.

'Le Pen victory would have disastrous consequences'

"That doesn't mean the far right will rule the EU Parliament, but the bigger their group, the more likely others, such as the center-right EPP, are to adopt far-right views to maintain power — which they already do, for example when it comes to immigration," said Pornschlegel.

"That enables the far right to appear more 'normal,' which could help them gain in national elections and exert influence at the EU-level in the powerful European Council," the researcher added.

Macron's immigration law rejected by French lower house

Analysts are also no longer writing off the possibility of a far-right victory in France's 2027 presidential election — with some even accusing President Macron of "normalizing" the RN by adopting some of the party's views. One example is a recent French law toughening immigration rules.

Pornschlegel said a victory for RN leader Marine Le Pen would have disastrous consequences for Europe.

"It would be a final blow to the so-called Franco-German engine, or cooperation between France and Germany, which is crucial for the EU to move forward," she warned.

But back at the Sorbonne, Macron was adamant that he would not be intimidated by the rise of populism.

"The best way to fight back is to make promises that we can make good on — we can take back control of our destiny," he said.

"We should believe in our European values and humanism." 

Edited by: Jon Shelton