Nathalie Loiseau, cerebral and uncharismatic, does not hide the fact that she was an unexpected choice by Emmanuel Macron to lead the European election campaign that the French president sees as crucial for his La République en Marche (LREM) party.
“They said I was serious, so I’ll give a serious speech,” the former Europe minister wryly told supporters at a weekend rally in Strasbourg.
And so she did, reading a carefully worded address condemning nationalists such as Donald Trump and Hungary’s Viktor Orban and praising giants of European culture and history from Johannes Gutenberg to Pablo Picasso. “We will not be the somnambulists of Europe,” she said.
Yet for Mr Macron such highbrow speeches are not enough. Two years ago, fresh from victory in a presidential election that reshaped French politics, he launched a bold EU reform agenda. Now he finds his ambitious plans, including a common eurozone budget, are being rejected or relentlessly watered down by his European neighbours — while voters at home are unimpressed.
A Harris Interactive/Epoka poll for Le Figaro published this week put the far-right, Brussels-baiting Rassemblement National (RN) of Marine Le Pen on 22.5 per cent of the vote, fractionally ahead of LREM, with 22 per cent.
Alarmed by the opinion polls — and the enthusiasm generated by the RN’s fast-talking 23-year-old campaign leader Jordan Bardella — Mr Macron has ordered in the big guns ahead of the May 26 election. Edouard Philippe, prime minister, and other cabinet members have been sent into the fray and told to inject energy into Ms Loiseau’s rallies to try to ensure that LREM emerges as the biggest French party in the European Parliament.
A win for the RN would bolster Europe’s nationalists and populists and deal a further blow to Mr Macron’s ambitions to upend the EU’s entrenched political order, as he did in France two years ago.
“In France he has broken the political parties, mainly the Socialist party, and weakened the [traditional] right,” said Pascale Joannin, an international politics expert who heads the Robert Schuman Foundation. “In the European family, maybe he expects to do the same, but it’s not possible because France is only one member state and there are 27 others.”
Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, his EU partner of choice, has lost political influence at home, while Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her successor as leader of the Christian Democrats, gave a frosty response to Mr Macron’s latest European proposals, including one for a pan-EU minimum wage.
“The red light came very quickly from Germany,” said Elvire Fabry, a senior research fellow at the Jacques Delors Institute. “Macron really relied on Merkel.”
At the same time, Brexit and the rise of nationalism elsewhere in Europe have markedly changed what was once a more welcoming environment for Mr Macron’s ideas. “Mr Macron’s very ambitious plans landed in a Europe that was reluctant to move,” said Ms Fabry.
But the worry now for Mr Macron is that he is being undermined by political failures in France as well as his difficulties in Brussels.
The anti-government gilets jaunes protesters, although fewer in number now, continue to demonstrate in city centres every Saturday as they have for the past six months.
And the government’s economic reforms, including an attempt to reduce the size and cost of the civil service, face increasing public resistance.
The latest blow came when the Constitutional Council last week authorised the launch of a previously unused referendum process — initiated in parliament by the combined opposition forces of left and right — that will delay for at least a year and possibly even annul the planned privatisation of airports operator Aéroports de Paris.
Ms Le Pen, Mr Bardella and the RN are portraying the European vote as a domestic political fight, a chance for French voters to punish Mr Macron at the polls.
It is a tactic that might work given the tendency of voters in many countries to treat the European elections as a chance to make a symbolic protest that will not change their own national governments. The RN has never held power in France at the national level, but it won the most French seats in the 2014 European elections.
“I’m going to vote for a party that will block Macron,” said one 45-year-old civil servant taking part in a small gilets jaunes protest outside LREM’s Strasbourg rally. “Unfortunately that means the Rassemblement National.”
The response from Mr Macron and Ms Loiseau has been to emphasise themes such as the environment and immigration control, designed to lure in floating voters on the left and the right, while continuing to champion Mr Macron’s agenda of European integration.
“We need to protect Europe, not protect ourselves from Europe,” Ms Loiseau said in Strasbourg.
Yet the star turn at the rally was not Ms Loiseau herself but Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a former prime minister of the traditional right.
Mr Raffarin has abandoned his Les Républicains party for the duration of the campaign to support Ms Loiseau and LREM — engaging his audience with an ease that contrasted starkly with Ms Loiseau’s performance.