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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron at a news conference after Syria summit in Istanbul, Turkey on Oct. 27, 2018.POOL/Reuters

For French President Emmanuel Macron, the news of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure is both a setback to his European reform agenda and a chance to forge ahead in the absence of her dithering.

Ms. Merkel has remained Europe’s linchpin throughout a decade of crises, but the French-German alliance which Mr. Macron hoped to buttress his proposals for closer continental integration was clearly not as strong as he thought.

As Ms. Merkel’s domestic political problems began to undermine her leadership, she became even more cautious in the face of the rising nationalism that threatens the European Union. For the impatient Mr. Macron, working with Ms. Merkel had become an exercise in frustration.

To be sure, Mr. Marcon made kind comments following Ms. Merkel’s Monday announcement that she is stepping down as chair of her centre-right Christian Democratic Union and will not seek a fifth term as chancellor in 2021. Many expect her to leave before then. “She has had to face several challenges – the migration crisis, the financial crisis – and she has never forgotten Europe’s values,” Mr. Macron noted. “She has led, and leads, her country with much courage.”

Yet, if Ms. Merkel’s decision to throw open Germany’s borders to hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015 should be remembered as a courageous act, it was also the result of her failure to stop other EU countries from sealing their own borders in defiance of the rules.

Mr. Macron grew increasingly frustrated at Ms. Merkel’s go-slow approach in countering rising nationalism in several in EU countries. And while Ms. Merkel always defended Europe’s four freedoms – the free movement of goods, services, people and capital across the continent – she has seemed less devoted to them of late as she grapples with her domestic fall from grace.

Mr. Macron did secure Ms. Merkel’s backing for his reform agenda with the so-called Meseberg Declaration in June, which called for a single Eurozone budget and stricter EU-wide policies on migration, defence and the digital economy. “France and Germany are both convinced that the only appropriate response to these challenges resides in European co-operation,” their joint declaration read. “Purely national and uncoordinated actions open the way to failure and division.”

To some European watchers, Mr. Macron is less dedicated than Ms. Merkel in preventing Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, given moves by Paris to attract financial institutions from London. But the French President is keenly aware of the impact Brexit could have on feeding nationalist sentiment within his own country and across Europe.

Mr. Macron has already set himself up as the leader of the anti-nationalist forces heading into next spring’s elections for the European Parliament. It is shaping up to be a colossal battle against Euroskeptic populists and nationalists, led by governing parties in Italy and Hungary, who are seeking looser EU rules. A loss would weaken Mr. Macron both at home and abroad.

In the 2014 European elections, the far-right Front National finished first in France with 25 per cent of the popular vote. Mr. Macron’s République en Marche did not exist at the time, but the 2019 contest will pit his pro-European party against the FN, now called the Rassemblement National. “The far right, I’ll remind you, is doing the best of all in France,” Mr. Macron said on Monday following Ms. Merkel’s failure to stem the rise of the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany in regional elections. “It worries me, but it motivates me. If the extreme right is rising, it is because other parties are not managing to provide a response to people’s anger or fears.”

The danger facing Mr. Macron is that, by putting himself at the centre of the European elections, the latter become a referendum on his leadership at home. And unless he recovers quickly from a recent rough patch that has included a series of avoidable gaffes and the loss of two high-profile cabinet ministers, it could undermine the fate of his domestic reforms.

Luckily for him, France’s opposition parties have not recovered from their 2017 drubbing at the hands of Mr. Macron’s upstart En Marche. And the President has been able to succeed where his predecessors failed in reforming France’s labour laws, public service and bloated state-owned railway. His biggest enemy may be an inflated confidence in his own abilities.

Unlike Ms. Merkel, Mr. Macron faces a weak opposition at home. It positions him to become Europe’s de facto leader as Ms. Merkel fades from the picture. Can he do a better job than her keeping the EU together?

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