PARIS — There's a lot to be said about the style and content of Emmanuel Macron's address on Europe on Tuesday at the Sorbonne University. The French president has a habit, for example, of talking at length and peppering his speeches with multiple intellectual references, and this one was no exception, with nods to writer Albert Camus, philosopher Emmanuel Mounier and Robert Schuman, one of the founding fathers of modern Europe. Listeners, it's fair to say, could be forgiven for being a bit annoyed or bored by Macron's style.
And yet, what he said at the Sorbonne was actually quite ambitious, certainly more so than how he said it. Seen from Switzerland, the Frenchman's proposals to create a European agency for breakthrough innovation, a new body to control the application of European policies and levy new taxes (including a European carbon tax), should lead to vigorous debates given how removed the ideas seem to be from the demands many European citizens are making for less, rather than more fiscal and bureaucratic burden.
French leaders have a tendency to be arrogant, as everybody knows.
But the determination and ambition shown by the 39-year-old leader, who was elected on his promise of a "transformed" France inside a Europe capable of reinventing itself, must first of all be praised. To gamble as he does on a democratic refoundation of the Community pact, just two days after a far-right party entered Germany's Bundestag, is as laudable in its boldness as it is essential in the face of continuous assault from Europhobic populists.
French leaders have a tendency to be arrogant, as everybody knows. That's the risk. But who else could reshuffle the cards of the European game, inside of a Union that's still stunned by the Brexit vote, the consequences of the financial crisis and the migrant crisis? What other leader directly elected by a majority of voters can claim the same legitimacy, when the old, traditional parties are always tempted, in France and elsewhere, to use Brussels as a convenient scapegoat?
The answer is: nobody.
Emmanuel Macron, thanks to the French system's verticality, is the only European leader in a position to lead the counter-offensive by shaking up European institutions that are recalcitrant to changes and thus quick to ignore the peoples that make their lives more complicated. Tuesday, at the Sorbonne, he laid out the blueprints. Now it's time to start building.
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