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PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron sees himself as Europe's savior, and this week's European Parliament elections as a make-or-break moment for the beleaguered European Union.
But Macron is no longer the fresh-faced force who marched into a surprising presidential victory to the rhythm of the EU anthem two years ago. His pro-Europe vision has collided with national interests across the continent. And at home, his pro-business policies have given rise to France's raucous yellow vest uprising.
Macron wanted the May 23-26 European Parliament elections to be his shining moment to push his ambitions for a stronger Europe — but instead, nationalists and populists who blame the 28-nation bloc for piles of problems could achieve unprecedented success. They argue that elitist EU leaders have failed to manage migration and remain out of touch with ordinary workers' concerns.
"We have a crisis of the European Union. This is a matter of fact. Everywhere in Europe ... all the extremes, extreme-rights, are increasing," Macron said Thursday, making an unexpected appeal for European unity on the sidelines of a technology trade show.
"On currency, on digital, on climate action, we need more Europe," he said. "I want the EU to be more protective of our borders regarding migration, terrorism and so on, but I think if you fragment Europe, there is no chance you have a stronger Europe."
In person, the 41-year-old Macron comes across as strikingly, sincerely European. A political centrist, he's at ease quoting Greek playwrights, German thinkers or British economists. France's youngest president grew up with the EU and has been using the shared European euro currency his whole adult life, and sees it as Europe's only chance to stay in the global economic game.
Macron has already visited 20 of the EU's 28 countries in his two years in office, and while he acknowledges the EU's problems, he says they can only be solved by fixing the bloc — not disassembling it.
Macron won the 2017 presidential election over France's far-right, anti-immigration leader Marine Le Pen on a pledge to make Europe stronger to face global competition against the U.S. and China. Since then, he's had to make compromises with other EU leaders — and clashed with some nations where populist parties govern, from Poland to neighboring Italy.
Four months after his election, Macron outlined his vision for Europe in a sweeping speech at Paris' Sorbonne university, calling for a joint EU budget, shared military forces and harmonized taxes.
But with Brexit looming and nationalism rising, Macron has had to reconsider his ambitions. He calls his political tactics with other EU leaders a "productive confrontation." That has strained the Franco-German ties that underpin the EU.
In March, Macron sought to draw support for Europe with a written call to voters in 28 countries to reject nationalist parties that "offer nothing."
And he proposed to a roadmap for the EU by the end of this year based on discussion with a panel of European citizens.
"There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different paces, and that is open to all?" he asked.
Macron can count on cooperation from pro-EU governments but has made a point of not yet visiting Hungary or Poland, two nations led by populist leaders whom Macron accused last year of "lying" to their people about the EU.
France has also been entangled in a serious diplomatic crisis with Italy — a fellow EU founding nation — over migration. Italy's anti-migrant Interior Minister Matteo Salvini has repeatedly criticized Macron and is backing his rival Le Pen's National Rally party in the election this week that aims to fill the European parliament's 751 seats.
Macron has little chance to repeat Europe-wide what he did in France: rip up the political map by building a powerful centrist movement that weakened the traditional left and right.
The campaign for Macron's Republic on the Move party is being led by former European Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau under a banner called "Renaissance." The party wants to associate with the pro-market ALDE alliance to create new centrist group at the European Parliament.
But across the continent, the centrists are expected to rank third or even lower behind the parliament's traditional two biggest groups, the right-wing European People's Party and the left-wing Socialists and Democrats group.
Even at home, Macron is far from certain of being able to claim victory in the European vote. Loiseau's campaign has been lackluster, and polls suggest their party is in a close race with the far-right National Rally in the election, which takes place in France on May 26.
Le Pen's National Rally is determined to take revenge after she lost to Macron in 2017, and the European election campaigning has been unusually personal.
Le Pen compared Macron this weekend to "a child king" with "a kind of conviction of superpower." Speaking at a meeting of European nationalist leaders in Italy, Le Pen accused Macron of unfairly using his presidential office to campaign against her, and challenged him to step down if his party doesn't come out on top.
Le Pen isn't Macron's only problem. His political opponents across the spectrum are calling on French voters to seize the European elections to reject his government's policies.
While he won 64% of the presidential vote in 2017, Macron's popularity has been around half that for the past year.
It reached record lows when France's yellow vest movement broke out last fall, demanding relief from high taxes and stagnant wages for French workers, then slightly rose as extensive protest violence in Paris and elsewhere dampened support for the movement's cause.
At a farmer's market in southern Paris on Sunday, several shoppers said they'd vote for Macron's party, but few exhibited enthusiasm. A few said they voted for Macron in 2017, but plan to choose other parties in the European election — if they vote at all.
Part-time construction worker Marc Lambert said that despite tax breaks and other gestures by Macron to quell yellow vest anger, the president "still hasn't understood. He is in his bubble" of rich friends and start-up entrepreneurs. Lambert said Macron had failed to convince regular people that "Europe is the solution."
Meanwhile, new yellow vest protests are planned against Macron and his government — right up to EU election day.
Catherine Gaschka in Paris contributed to the story
For more news from The Associated Press on the European Parliament elections, go to https://www.apnews.com/EuropeanParliament
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