OPINION: Macron failed to do a De Gaulle on Britain. But why did he even try?

In holding a hardline against Britain's Brexit delay - a move that may have disappointed the tens of thousands of Britons in France - the French President Emmanuel Macron misread the mood of the EU, over-estimated his influence and let his arrogance and inexperience take over, writes John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron failed to do a De Gaulle on Britain. But why did he even try?
Photo: AFP

The emergency summit which ended in Brussels early today was supposed to be about Britain and Brexit.  For several hours, it became all about France; or rather all about Emmanuel Macron.

The French president implied that he was willing to take the “responsibility” of pushing Britain out of the EU tomorrow with “no deal”. Then he did not.

A compromise was reached which gave the UK – and up to 300,000 Britons in France – another six months in which to come to terms with Brexit. Or maybe to engineer a Non-Brexit

What was Macron doing? Many Britons in France will be disappointed that he took such a hard line. 

Other French politicians, both left and right, are naturally piling in today to say that they would have been tougher or played their cards much better in Brussels. The same politicians would have blamed Macron for the damage caused by a no-deal.  

Macron overplayed his hand. He did have arguments on his side: the danger of an endless, destructive Brexit war in the UK spreading to the continent; the absurdity of Britain voting in European elections in May and then withdrawing its Euro MPs after five months or even sooner. 

But Macron misread the mood of other EU capitals and he over-estimated his own strength.

It was never plausible that the French president would veto a further extension of Article 50 (the official two year process for Britain to leave the EU). There was no political gain for Macron in causing the economic and political chaos of a No Deal Brexit – no particular gain in France and none for his hopes of reshaping the European Union.

Other leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, knew that. They outbluffed him.

Macron wanted a short extension until 7 May or, at the very latest, the end of June. Most of the 26 others wanted to give Britain an extra 9 or 12 months – enough to extract the poison from the debate in the UK and, maybe, to allow the pressure to build for a second referendum.

The outcome was a classic Brussels early morning fix, something that no one wanted but everyone could live with. The other leaders compromised but it was Macron who climbed down. 

François Heisbourg, former head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in Lonon, tweeted: “Macron appears as the loser because he exposed himself needlessly by talking too much in the run-up.”

The French president failed to prepare the ground. Only two countries supported him, Austria and Luxembourg. They soon melted away. 

 Most importantly, he ran into the stubborn opposition of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Her German hatred of “chaos” defeated Macron’s French insistence on “first principles”. 

Franco-German spats in the EU are not new. The outcome of this spat puts into perspective Macron’s hopes of becoming the de facto “leader” of Europe when Merkel steps down at the end of her present term.

Officials from several other EU countries accused Macron of talking about “saving the EU” but “thinking only about French domestic politics”. This is misleading. Macron was driven as much by his sense of self-importance and European “mission” as genuine French interests.

Why did Macron take a hard line? He gave three reasons. 

First, a lengthy extension of British in-out membership could damage EU institutions and derail his own hopes of turning debate in Europe towards other pressing problems (migration, China, the US, the rise of anti-EU populism). Second, that the EU 27 should not be seen to be undermining the democratic vote of a majority of the British people to leave the EU in June 2016.

Third, that the “unity” of the EU-27 must be preserved.

The third argument was feeble. It amounted to saying that the others should fall into line with France. The others disagreed.

The second argument – the sacrosanct democracy of the 2016 referendum – is also dubious. Macron has himself pointed out in the past that this referendum was “won” partly by lies and impossible promises.

The French president’s first argument is perfectly sound and may yet prove prescient. If Theresa May is deposed and replaced by a Boris Johnson or a Michael Gove, the British civil war could cross the Channel . A Brexiteer-led UK government could try to disrupt business in Brussels to get its way.

READ ALSO: 'Brits get out of the EU' – A French view of the Brexit chaos

Others were prepared to take that risk. Some of them still cling to the possibility that Britain might change its mind. Macron does not. He thinks that it is time to cut Britain loose – amicably if possible, brutally if necessary.

There is an intellectual constituency in France for this “get them out” viewpoint, among pro-European politicians and think-tank operatives. There is no strong emotional or popular  pressure from the French mainstream media or the general public.

Any small electoral gain for Macron would have been outweighed by the economic and political damage of a French-willed no-deal Brexit:  French trawlers banned from UK waters; disruption at ports and the Channel Tunnel; Irish fury.  

The other EU leaders rightly concluded that Macron would not stand alone as Charles De Gaulle did against UK membership in 1963 and 1967. The circumstances were different. The personalities were different. 

They were right. Macron’s arrogance and inexperience took him into an unsustainable position. At least he had the sense to recognise that and to withdraw.

John Lichfield is a veteran correspondent on all things French and European. He is based in France. You can follow him on Twitter @John_Lichfield

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OPINION: France’s ‘slow train’ revolution may just be the future for travel

Famous for its high-speed TGV trains, France is now seeing the launch of a new rail revolution - slow trains. John Lichfield looks at the ambitious plan to reconnect some of France's forgotten areas through a rail co-operative and a new philosophy of rail travel.

OPINION: France's 'slow train' revolution may just be the future for travel
The slow trains would better connect rural France. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

France, the home of the Very Fast Train, is about to rediscover the Slow Train.

From the end of this year, a new railway company, actually a cooperative, will offer affordable, long-distance travel between provincial towns and cities. The new trains – Trains à Grande Lenteur (TGL)?– will wander for hours along unused, or under-used, secondary lines.

The first service will be from Bordeaux to Lyon, zig-zagging across the broad waist of France through Libourne, Périgueux, Limoges, Guéret, Montluçon and Roanne. Journey time: seven hours and 30 minutes.

Other itineraries will eventually include: Caen to Toulouse, via Limoges in nine hours and 43 minutes and Le Croisic, in Brittany, to Basel in Switzerland, with 25 intermediate stops  in 11 hours and 13 minutes.

To a railway lover like me such meandering journeys through La France Profonde sound marvellous. Can they possibly be a commercial proposition?

Some of the services, like Bordeaux-Lyon, were abandoned by the state railway company, the SNCF, several years ago. Others will be unbroken train journeys avoiding Paris which have never existed before – not even at the height of French railway boom at the end of the 19th century.

The venture has been made possible by the EU-inspired scrapping of SNCF’s monopoly on French rail passenger services. The Italian rail company Trenitalia is already competing on the high-speed TGV line between Lyon and Paris.

The low-speed trains also grow from an initiative by President Emmanuel Macron and his government to rescue some of France’s under-used, 19th century, local railways – a reversal of the policy adopted in Britain under Dr Richard Beeching from 1963.

The cross-country, slow train idea was formally approved by the rail regulator before Christmas. It has been developed by French public interest company called Railcoop (pronounced Rye-cope), which has already started its own freight service in south west France.

Ticket prices are still being calculated but they are forecast to be similar to the cost of “ride-sharing” on apps like BlaBla Car.

A little research shows that a Caen-Toulouse ticket might therefore be circa €30 for an almost ten-hour journey. SNCF currently demands between €50 and €90 for a seven-and-a-half-hour trip, including crossing Paris by Metro between Gares Saint Lazare and Montparnasse.

Maybe Railcoop is onto something after all.

The company/cooperative has over 11,000 members or “share-holders”, ranging from local authorities, businesses, pressure groups, railwaymen and women to future passengers. The minimum contribution for an individual is  €100.

The plan is to reconnect towns ignored, or poorly served, by the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV) high speed train revolution in France of the last 40 years. Parts of the Bordeaux-Lyon route are already covered by local passenger trains; other parts are now freight only.

In the longer term, Railcoop foresees long-distance night trains; local trains on abandoned routes; and more freight trains.  It promises “new technological” solutions, such as “clean” hydrogen-powered trains.

MAP France’s planned new night trains

For the time being it plans to lease and rebuild eight three carriage, diesel trains which have been made redundant in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region.

There will be no space for a buffet or restaurant car. Restaurants and shops along the route will be invited to prepare local specialities which will be sold during station stops and eaten on board.

What a wonderful idea: French provincial meals on wheels; traiteurs on trains.

Olivia Wolanin of Railcoop told me: “We want to be part of the transition to a greener future, which is inevitably going to mean more train travel.

“We also want to offer journeys at a reasonable price to people who live in or want to visit parts of France where train services have all but vanished. We see ourselves as a service for people who have no cars – but also for people who DO have cars.”

Full disclosure. I am a fan of railways. I spent much of my childhood at Crewe station in Cheshire closely observing trains.

Three years ago I wrote a column for The Local on the dilemma facing SNCF and the French government on the 9,000 kilometres of underused and under-maintained local railway lines in France. Something like half had been reduced to low speeds because the track was so unreliable. Several dozen lines had been “suspended” but not yet officially axed.

The government commissioned senior civil servant, and rail-lover, François Philizot to study the problem. After many delays, he reported that much of the French rail network was in a state of “collapse”. Far from turning out to be a French Beeching, he recommended that a few lines might have to close but most could and should be saved – either by national government or by regional governments.

Since then the Emmanuel Macron-Jean Castex government has promised a big new chunk of spending on “small lines” as part of its €100 billion three year Covid-recovery plan. Even more spending is needed but, for the first time since the TGV revolution began in 1981, big sums are to be spent on old lines in France as well as new ones.

The Railcoop cross-country network, to be completed by 2024-5, will run (at an average of 90 kph) partly on those tracks. Can it succeed where a similar German scheme  failed?

François Philizot suggested in a recent interview with Le Monde that a revival of slow trains might work – so long as we accept that a greener future will also be a less frenetic future.

“When you’re not shooting across the country like an arrow at 300 kph, you can see much more and you can think for much longer,” Philizot said.

Amen to that.