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PARIS — Emmanuel Macron had hoped his country’s EU presidency would boost his own likely reelection bid — and then along came Omicron.
Now, uncertainty surrounding in-person events, positive tests from high-ranking officials and pandemic-dominated headlines risk jeopardizing a well-prepared program partly designed to make the French president shine ahead of April’s presidential election.
“There is a risk” that the Omicron wave that has swept across Europe in recent weeks limits the French EU presidency’s impact beyond the corridors of policymaking as local events in smaller towns are moved online, an official from the Elysée Palace conceded Wednesday.
“The important thing to remember is that in this difficult sanitary situation, we have adopted a health doctrine. We are cautious,” the official added.
The Omicron wave will likely not make much difference to EU legislative work in Brussels — interinstitutional talks, working parties and the like — as the EU bubble has already learned to adapt over the past two years.
But dozens of events throughout France scheduled for the next three months risk being canceled or going virtual, and it’s already happening — a conference on the protection of workers sent from one EU state to another has already moved online.
That would threaten the EU-themed (and non-cycling) tour de France, intended to show French citizens outside Paris the benefits of the EU — and the key role Macron plays within it — as well as winning political points with local mayors ahead of the April vote. Macron hasn’t officially declared his candidacy but when he does, he will be the candidate with by far the most pro-EU agenda.
A bad start
The French presidency of the Council of the EU — which kicked off on January 1 and lasts for the first half of the year — hasn’t had an auspicious start.
“If it were not for the flag episode, the beginning of the French EU Council presidency would have almost gone unnoticed because of the dominance of this COVID wave,” said Sébastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, referring to the outrage triggered by the EU flag flying solo under the Arc de Triomphe over the weekend.
The hoisting of the EU flag (and not the French one) was meant to mark the beginning of the EU presidency but quickly became a fight over France’s history and identity, and saw all of Macron’s rivals turn on him.
This week’s visit to Paris by all the European commissioners is going ahead as planned, although the program hangs by a thread because of the pandemic and needed readjustment after National Assembly President Richard Ferrand tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Commission Vice President Věra Jourová will not make the trip because she is ill, a Commission spokesperson said, although he did not say whether she had coronavirus.
This time last year, when Portugal held the rotating EU…