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The EU is viewed by most as a democratic union of 28 members. That is what its core treaties say and that is what its key spokespeople say. However, the bloc, and its predecessor versions, have always relied upon Germany and France as its anchor tenants.
It was the French wartime hero and later President Charles de Gaulle who famously told the German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1963 that, “Europe is France and Germany; the rest are just the trimmings”.
More than half a century later, de Gaulle’s comment still appears to be relevant.
At the end of August, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron met in a medieval island fortress in the Mediterranean to chart the next steps for the partnership that is the driving force behind the bloc.
Inside the walls of Fort de Brégançon, traditional summer residence of French leaders, the German Chancellor and French President attempted to tackle the most pressing issues on the global agenda.
At the same time Mrs Merkel was seeking to cement progress on some long-standing objectives.
These included, according to two senior German government sources, deciding what relationship Europe should have with a resurgent China, re-imagining the shape of the EU after Britain’s exit, and carving out a role for Europe as a defence power to match its economic might.
One of the two German government sources said: “Both Merkel and Macron are aware that the EU is in a crucial period.
“And that France and Germany – even though they have different views on a lot of issues – have to stick together.”
However, unearthed reports suggest that the relationship might encounter some difficulties soon.
French President Emmanuel Macron got elected in 2017 on a pro-EU platform, defeating the National Front – an anti-immigration and anti-EU party led by Marine Le Pen.
However, trust in Mr Macron is plummeting amid the coronavirus pandemic. According to a poll published in September, around 62 percent of French people admitted to not trusting their President.
The Elabe poll for BFMTV, which asked 1,000 people in France aged 18 and over, also found that nearly one in two people (47 percent) think the President is not taking “enough precautions” to limit the spread of the virus.
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With the 2022 presidential election nearing, according to the head of London-based think-tank Euro Intelligence Wolfgang Munchau, Mr Macron and the EU should be concerned about a surprise candidate sweeping in.
He wrote: “The French President might be worried about Xavier Bertrand, a high-profile former member of Les Républicains and potential 2022 candidate who is close with the [fishing] industry.
“Bertrand is president of the Hauts-de-France region. He served as health minister under Jacques Chirac and labour minister under Nicolas Sarkozy.
“Last month, he attended the general assembly of the Coopérative Maritime Etaploise, where he called for arm-wrestling with the UK in fisheries negotiations.”
He added: “More good optics for him. Bertrand has recently been spotted in meetings with a string of senior right-wing political figures, including LR [The Republicans] President Christian Jacob.
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“Rachida Dati supports his candidacy, and Le Journal du Dimanche reports that he will meet with Nicolas Sarkozy next month. With the help of LR deputy Julien Dive, he has also been meeting with parliamentarians this week, and is set to meet with senators next week.
“His think tank La Manufacture has been mobilised to develop an election campaign strategy, and a recent Ifop poll put Bertrand at the top of the list of potential right-wing candidates.”
Mr Bertrand’s ideas on Europe seem to be in stark contrast with Mr Macron, particularly when it comes to relations with Germany.
In 2014, the former health minister said he no longer believed in the French-German pas-de-deux at the heart of the European project.
He told Le Journal du Dimanche: “It’s not the be-all and end-all of French politics.
“Take energy – I don’t see how we can have a common policy when our interests are so different.”
In 1992, he led the campaign for the ‘no’ to the Maastricht Treaty in his department, the Aisne in the region of Picardy.
However, he pronounced himself strongly in favour of a European Constitution for the referendum on May 29, 2005.
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