Is Macron closing in on Alsace’s far-right?

New “Collectivité Européenne d’Alsace” raises region’s profile but may have ulterior motives

When quizzed on their national identities, many people from the eastern French region of Alsace are keen to emphasise that they belong to the French Republic.

Yet, whilst having robust national ties, many profess a link to Alsatian regional culture and heritage. For centuries, Alsace has been a crossroads of culture, commerce, politics, theology and art. Its Christmas gingerbread, traditional dress and Lutheran-inspired choral tradition makes Alsace the confluence point of the “Franco” and the “Germanic”, resulting in a unique form of francité.

Despite this regional culture and heritage, the administrative region of Alsace has ceased to exist for the past four years. In 2016, its two local départements—the Bas-Rhin and the Haut-Rhin—were merged with eight others in neighbouring Champagne-Ardenne and Lorraine. A new grande région called the Grand-Est replaced the former Alsace, with the goal of cutting administrative costs. But some Alsatian residents believed the move to convey little respect for centuries-old regional traditions.

In a report produced for the French government in 2018, civil servant Jean-Luc Marx argued that the institution of the Grand-Est had accentuated a “desire for Alsace” among some. As a result, the European Collectivity of Alsace (Collectivité Européenne d’Alsace, or CEA) was established on 2 January. Whilst officially remaining part of the Grand-Est, the CEA will merge decision makers from Alsace’s two currently separate départements to create one common regional authority. It is hoped that the CEA will reinforce the cultural existence of Alsace and enable closer policy coordination.

Some are less enthusiastic, however. One local politician argues that the CEA is “above all symbolic” and that it provides “nothing innovative”. Others believe there to be few problems with the Grand-Est, seeing it as a mostly political institution which has little impact upon culture anyway. Several friends told me recently that if the French Republic is itself based upon diversity, the Grand-Est shouldn’t pose a problem in terms of culture, which should remain strong despite administrative borders being withdrawn. Moreover, it seems that some are unsure of the CEA‘s purpose, begging the question of how many people the institution will meaningfully affect.

Nevertheless, the CEA may usefully promote increased co-operation between France, Germany and Switzerland. A new cross-border health centre is being discussed within the context of the Eurodistrict PAMINA, the organisation which supports links between Alsace, the German Rhineland and northern Switzerland. The CEA’s remit also includes the promotion of bilingualism in schools. It is hoped that more German teachers may be available throughout the region.

Yet the CGT, one of France’s main trade unions, argues that this would rely on contracting teachers privately instead of mobilising staff through France’s state education system. Furthermore, plans to use Alsace’s regional “pretzel heart” logo more widely and to reinstate crested vehicle numberplates may indeed raise awareness of the region, but risk having a limited “cosmetic” impact. And when it comes to strengthening crossborder links, the Eurodistrict PAMINA already promotes collaboration throughout the French and German Rhineland. A story regarding plans for the new cross-border health centre has been pasted directly from the Eurodistrict website and placed on the CEA‘s own news feed.

There may be ulterior motives behind the CEA, which would explain its shortcomings. Protecting local culture and heritage is a hot topic in Alsace. Many people – especially those from rural areas – are wooed by the far-right Rassemblement national (RN), whose campaigns often criticise what it sees as an overly centralised Parisian government threatening regional particularism through institutions and immigration. The party gained 25.7% of the vote in the first round of the 2017 presidential election, and 39% in the second round.

From this perspective, the CEA may be an efficient way for President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, to win voters from RN. Mr Macron is likely to go head-to-head with its leader, Marine Le Pen, in the 2022 presidential election. Even if the CEA appear to lack substance, Mr Macron may hope not only to quell concerns surrounding the Grand-Est but gain political ground by positioning himself as the protector of local culture.

The flipside is that Mr Macron might also have kickstarted a potentially messy conversation surrounding decentralisation in France. Brigitte Klinkert, Minister for Integration and former president of the Haut-Rhin council, has said that “The European Collectivity of Alsace, wanted by the French president, is going to become a laboratory for decentralisation and a European laboratory for France.” The CEA could inspire leaders in other regions to seek new privileges. In July 2020, the presidents of three important institutions in French local democracy—the Association of French Mayors, the Association of French Regions and the Assembly of French Départementscalled for the central government to clarify their powers. They also requested to have their fair share of the €40 billion sum allocated to France under the European Union’s Covid-19 recovery plan.

The CEA might provide Alsace’s people with a degree of cultural stability. But the plans may only reaffirm Mr Macron’s track record of promising too much yet achieving very little. The French president branded himself initially as a centrist, but his policies on tax reform and cultural diversity have brought out his right-wing tendencies. Mr Macron may similarly have promised Alsace too much in an effort to boost his political standing at the same time. The president will find out whether his plan has worked when the country heads to the polls.

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