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What does it mean for France to take over EU presidency?

France will take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months on January 1, 2022. But what does that actually mean and how could it play in Macron's favour?

French president Emmanuel Macron gestures as he  delivering a speech
Photo: Ludovic Marin / POOL / AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron is to become the President of the Council of the European Union in January. 

In a speech on Thursday, he outlined his objectives, pledging that France would work towards building a strong and “sovereign” European Union. Part of this would entail reforming the Schengen area.

But what is the Council of the European Union?

It is not the same as…

  • The European Council:

This brings together Heads of State and government of the 27 Member States and defines the overall political direction and priorities of the European Union. Its current President is Charles Michel, who took office on December 1, 2019, replacing Donald Tusk.

  • The Council of Europe

This is an intergovernmental organisation made up of 47 Member States. Founded in 1949, the Council of Europe promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law. Its seat is in Strasbourg and its Secretary-General is Marija Pejčinović Burić.

So what is it?

The Council of the European Union is a political institution that acts as a a liaison between the EU Council (which is made up exclusively of EU heads of state) and other EU bodies, notably the Commission and European Parliament. The Council of the European Union also plays a legislative role. 

The presidency of the Council of the European Union rotates among EU member states every six months. Macron takes over the from January 1st, 2022. His job will be to chair its meetings. Should Macron lose the 2022 election, his successor will take over for the rest of the term. 

The purpose of the rotating rather than permanent or elected presidency is to ensure cooperation between all member states. In the early years of the EU, when there were fewer Member States, each country held the six-month presidency every three years. Today, with 27 members all getting their turn, the role comes around every 13 years. 

This will be the 13th time that France has held the presidency since 1958. The most recent was in 2008, under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy. 

What can France hope to achieve in that time?

Although France will hold the presidency directly for just six months, it will work with the two nations that follow it in the cycle to develop an overall 18-month programme before a new ‘trio’ of nations takes on the job.

France is the first of the latest ‘trio’. It will work with the Czech Republic and Sweden, which will take over the presidency directly in six months and twelve months respectively, to align objectives and set priorities.

The cycle that is coming to its conclusion was presided over by Germany, Portugal and Slovenia. 

What does it mean for Emmanuel Macron?

That’s hard to say. Although he has not yet declared his intention to run for a second five-year stint at the Elysée, he is widely expected to be involved in the race for the French Presidency in April. This European role could be both a help and a hindrance.

He may use the presidency to provide an EU-centric, europhile platform for his campaign – if he runs. But that could work against him if rivals manage to keep the debate focused on the French economy, national security and immigration, or other mostly domestic issues. 

And, while he will be able to use the presidency to influence decisions at an EU level, it’s unlikely bordering on impossible for him to be able to trumpet a major EU success during any election campaign. The wheels of EU politics and decision making just don’t move that fast.

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POLITICS

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

French President Emmanuel Macron is facing his biggest standoff with France's trade unions since coming to power in 2017, with the outcome of a series of strikes and protests seen as decisive for both sides.

Macron vs the unions: What happens next in France?

The 45-year-old leader has made raising the retirement age a signature domestic policy of his second term in office — something the unions and millions of protesters are determined to block.

After two days of nationwide strikes and demonstrations, AFP looks at what is likely to happen next on the streets, in parliament, inside the government, and in wider French public opinion.

On the streets

Labour leaders were delighted with their second day of protests on Tuesday, which they claimed had seen around 2.5 million people hit the streets, including in many small and medium-sized towns.

Official estimates put the figure at 1.27 million, compared to 1.1 million people during round one on January 19th, according to the interior ministry.

READ MORE: Calendar: The latest French pension strike dates to remember

Momentum is clearly with the unions who announced two further days of protests and strikes next week, on Tuesday and Saturday.

“The movement is growing and spread across the whole country,” the head of the hard-left CGT union, Philippe Martinez, said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, unions no longer have the ability to paralyse the country and working-from-home practices mean most white-collar workers can easily adjust to transport stoppages.

The biggest fear of authorities is a repeat of the 2018 so-called “Yellow Vest” protests — a spontaneous movement drawn mostly from the countryside and small-town France that led to shockingly violent clashes with police. 

“The trauma was so big and the violence so great, I don’t see it happening again for the moment,” Bruno Cautres from Sciences Po university in Paris told AFP earlier this month. 

In government 

The government was expecting a rough ride — few major policy changes happen in France without protests, and former president Nicolas Sarkozy faced similar resistance with his pension reform in 2010.

Macron has faced numerous challenges from the unions in the past and has always succeeded in pushing through his pro business agenda and social security reforms.

The only exception was his first attempt at pension reform — also highly contested — which he withdrew in 2020 during the Covid 19 pandemic.

Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been the public face of the latest proposals, while Macron has kept his statements and appearances to a minimum, as is his habit.

But with the battle lines hardening and protests growing, the president might be forced to enter the fray. 

“I think the president will speak, but not right now,” a minister told AFP on condition of anonymity. “If he did it now, it would look like we’re panicking.”

In parliament

The draft legislation will be debated for the first time in the 577-seat National Assembly from Monday.

Macron’s allies are the largest group with 170 seats, but they do not hold a majority after a weaker-than-expected showing in June elections.

Support from the 62 rightwing Republicans (LR) party MPs will be essential.

LR has long supported raising the retirement age, but there are doubts over how many of their MPs will give the government their backing.

“I’m not asking the government to give in to the protests. This reform needs to be done,” LR parliamentary party chief Olivier Marleix said on Wednesday.

The lower house debate will finish on February 17th at the latest when a vote can be called — or the government could transfer it to the Senate or ram it through with controversial executive powers that dispense with the need for a ballot.

The bill is expected to pass the conservative-dominated Senate, where a vote is to take place by mid-March.

Public opinion

The latest polling figures show a growing majority opposes the reform and supports the protests, with roughly two in three people against the proposals.

Ministers have struggled to find winning arguments, at times arguing the changes are needed to reduce government spending, at others insisting they will make the pension system fairer.

“The government has not won with the argument that it is necessary,” Bernard Sananes, the head of the Elabe polling group, told AFP. “And it is fighting on another, more intense front which is that the reform is seen as unfair.”

In private, Macron’s allies insist their best hope is for parliament to quickly approve the legislation that will never be popular but might grudgingly be accepted as necessary.

“The question is how big the protest movement will be and how long it will last,” the minister told AFP.

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