Sunday 23 September 2018

European strategy being thrashed out in a city shaped by centuries of immigration

Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in Marseilles ahead of their key meeting. Photo: Getty Images
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in Marseilles ahead of their key meeting. Photo: Getty Images

Mary Fitzgerald

French President Emmanuel Macron seems to have a thing for Marseilles, the country's often (unfairly) maligned second city. His favourite football team is Olympique de Marseille, whose local fans are renowned for their boisterous loyalty.

He visited the Mediterranean port city on the first stop of his presidential campaign and made headlines when he returned again for his first summer holiday as president, a novel choice that broke with more traditional destinations.

Yesterday, he hosted Germany's Angela Merkel in Marseilles to discuss strategy eight months ahead of crucial European Parliament elections which many fear could bring another wave of populism further empowering the far right.

Europe's populist surge has many parents but a key driver - and one the far right in several countries has shamelessly exploited - is anxiety over immigration, even if the numbers arriving is lower than for years.

Marseilles, a city shaped by centuries of immigration, is a fitting backdrop to a confab about how the issue is shaping the future of Europe. It is estimated every fifth person living in Marseilles was born abroad and around one in three is Muslim. Most are from former French colonies, particularly in north Africa. When a French team dominated by players of immigrant background won the World Cup this summer, the streets of Marseilles were filled with joyous supporters who trace their roots back to the same countries.

Marseilles struggles with high youth unemployment and some of its neighbourhoods are among Europe's most impoverished, but its relatively good record of fostering a particular brand of social cohesion has often been held up as a model for other large French cities, and indeed elsewhere in Europe.

The riots that spread across the suburbs of Paris and Lyon in 2005 failed to ignite in Marseilles - testament, many here say, to its ability to practice coexistence better than most.

Next year's European Parliament elections will be a key battleground in what many see as an urgent struggle for the continent's soul as the far right continues to gain ground.

Mr Macron, who campaigned on a staunchly pro-EU platform and seeks to prove his European credentials at every turn, appears intent on framing the European Parliament elections in the same way he did his presidential campaign. Facing Front National leader Marine Le Pen as his main challenger then, Mr Macron presented the choice facing voters as one between insular, regressive and bigoted ultra-nationalism and his globalised world-view.

Last week, Mr Macron exchanged barbs with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who boasts of the "illiberal democracy" that has flourished there under his populist government.

Mr Orban, in Rome last week to forge a new alliance with Italy's far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, spoke of "two camps in Europe", one that wants to stop immigration and another "headed by Macron" that he described as pro-migration.

Several central and eastern European states whose governments include shades of the far right have found common cause with Mr Orban on immigration and this worries Mr Macron and Ms Merkel. Even in Sweden, traditionally seen as tolerant, the far right is expected to make gains. "If they want to see me as their main opponent, they're right," Mr Macron responded to Mr Orban's swipe.

All of this will have been on the agenda in sun-dappled Marseilles yesterday, in addition to Mr Macron's ambitious vision for the EU, including closer co-operation on the economy and security.

But both Mr Macron and Ms Merkel are struggling with approval ratings at home - Mr Macron's due largely to his handling of economic reforms at home and Ms Merkel's due to pressures over immigration exploited by the far right - and their partnership suffers as a result. Mr Orban and his ilk are determined to exploit this as much as they can.

Irish Independent

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