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France ushers in 2022 with right-wing outrage over EU flag.

The symbolic gesture was intended to mark the beginning of France’s six-month presidency of the European Union. The blue EU flag, with its circle of 12 gold stars, was supposed to fly above the tomb of the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe for several days, but it was removed during the night from Saturday to Sunday following an outcry from the French right.

France has moved dramatically rightward in recent years, and the only threat to President Emmanuel Macron’s re-election comes from right-wing candidates. By turning the EU banner into a flag of discord, his adversaries showed how fractious French politics have become, and signalled that domestic divisions, as well as broader divisions within Europe, may limit Macron’s ability to make important changes during an EU mandate that is already hampered by the Covid pandemic and the fact that it coincides with the French presidential election.

“Preside over Europe, Yes, but erase French identity, No!” tweeted Valérie Pécresse, the candidate for the conservative party Les Républicains, and Macron’s most serious rival for the Élysée.

The far-right candidate Marine Le Pen announced that she would file a complaint with the Council of State against the flying of the EU flag alone. Until this weekend, custom dictated that the French tricolour always fly alongside the European emblem. This was the first time it hung from a French monument alone.

Eric Zemmour, the far-right candidate whose rapid rise in opinion polls created a political sensation last autumn, proclaimed himself “outraged”.

At the end of Macron’s televised New Year’s address, the Élysée, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and a dozen other public buildings were lit up with European colours. The light show will continue this week, despite the Élysée’s climbdown over the Arc de Triomphe.

Shaky start

France has known more auspicious beginnings. In the last 24 hours of 2021, a record 232,000 people tested positive for Covid-19. Supermarkets saw a run on antigen tests, which had previously been sold in pharmacies only at much higher prices.

Macron began his address by remembering the 123,000 French citizens who have died in the pandemic. “We all know that the coming weeks will be difficult,” he said. “The virus will circulate more and more ... Many of our activities will be altered because of this new, so contagious variant.”

One year earlier, Macron had proclaimed his hope that the virus would be vanquished by spring. He tried to be optimistic on Friday night. “We have the vaccine on our side. We have acquired experience, and thus, reasons to hope ... Vaccination dramatically reduces transmission. It divides the number of serious cases by 10. Yet again, I call on the five million people who have not been vaccinated. Make this simple gesture. For you. For your compatriots. For our country.”

Macron is not expected to declare his candidacy until the end of the month, but he defended his record in office. French joblessness is at its lowest level in 15 years. The number of young apprentices has doubled. He has reformed unemployment insurance, created an inflation indemnity, established a minimum pension of €1,000 monthly. From January 1st, contraception is offered free of charge to all women under the age of 25.

“Despite the trials, France is stronger than two years ago,” Macron continued. “I am resolutely optimistic for our nation, not only for 2022 but for the coming years; 2022 may be the last year of the epidemic ... the year when we can leave this day without end behind us.”

‘Time of progress’

It will also be “the year of a European turning point”, he promised. “You can count on my total commitment to make [the French EU presidency] a time of progress for you.” Under the rotating presidency, France will convene meetings of European ministers, set the agenda and conduct negotiations. Macron promised to improve border security, increase defence co-operation, fight climate change, promote equality between men and women, build a new alliance with Africa and better regulate the internet giants.

On the home front, Macron promised “to take new decisions to fight radical Islam and reinforce order, security and tranquillity for all, to better protect you”. The government deployed a record 130,000 police, gendarmes and firemen to maintain order on New Year’s Eve. There were nonetheless 874 cars torched across France, the interior minister announced. Nearly 400 people were arrested. In Strasbourg, youths fired home-made mortars and attempted to set up barricades.

Alluding to his rivals for the presidency, Macron said he has strived to promote unity. “A difficult path, because it is easy to pit generations, social categories and [ethnic] origins against each other.... Let us continue to respect our differences, have confidence in who we are, look towards our future with courage, audacity and lucidity.”

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