Macron meets political adversary Orban ahead of France’s EU presidency

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French President Emmanuel Macron will meet Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest on Monday, hoping to secure his backing on topics including investment, nuclear power and European defence ahead of the French Presidency of the European Union.

It is Macron’s first visit to Hungary since his 2017 election and the first by a French head of state since 2007.

The French leader will take part in a meeting of the Visegrad countries — Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia — and meet Orban one-on-one as well as the country’s opposition leaders.

Ahead of their meeting, Macron described his Hungarian counterpart as “a political adversary, but a European partner”.

“Whatever our political sensibilities, whatever our choices, we must work together for our Europe,” he said.

“It is very clear that on the subject of the rule of law, there will be disagreements, but I think that on the subjects of sovereignty, on the subject of the growth model and on multiple subjects, there can also be an ability to find useful compromises,” he added.

However, Orban has often been cited by Macron as the leader of a nationalist and sovereignist camp in the EU, in opposition to what he calls “progressive” Europhiles.

Common ground

Along with Poland, Hungary has adopted several laws that have been contested in Brussels, including a text banning the representation of homosexuality to children under 18. And like Warsaw, it is challenging the supremacy of European law over national law.

In response, the Commission has launched several procedures against Budapest for infringing the rule of law and EU values, in particular a “conditionality” mechanism for European aid, which blocks the payment of subsidies for recovery.

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But these issues “are not necessarily linked” to agreements that can be reached on digital sovereignty, strengthening European defence, a European investment budget or industrial alliances, the French presidency argued.

The two leaders had already found common ground when Macron received Orban in October 2019, particularly on border protection and the need for European defence.

However, the French presidential palace assures that Macron will also talk about the points of disagreement and is “not used to dodging”, while the Hungarian LGBT+ community called on him to raise the issue during the meeting, in an open letter to the French magazine Têtu.

Orban meanwhile, receives Macron weeks after rolling down the red carpet for Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour —two far-right candidates for the French presidential election taking place this coming April — allowing him to “demonstrate his European importance” well above what his country of 9.8 million inhabitants suggests, Eszter Petronella Soos, a Hungarian political scientist specialising in France, said.

And on a bilateral level, “despite the differences between a liberal Emmanuel Macron and a conservative Viktor Orban, there are important points of cooperation, for example on energy policy between these two supporters of nuclear power,” Daniel Deak, a pro-Orban analyst at the Hungarian 21st Century Institute, added.

Meeting the opposition

Scheduled to arrive in the Hungarian capital at 11:30 CET, Macron will first visit the grave of philosopher and opposition figure Agnes Heller, who he had received in Paris in 2018 and died a year later.

His trip will also see him meet Gergely Karacsony, the mayor of Budapest, as well as other representatives of anti-Orban parties, including Peter Marki-Zay, the sole opposition candidate who hopes to overthrow the Hungarian Prime Minister, in power since 2010, in the April 2022 legislative elections.

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“Mr Macron, the Hungary you are about to visit is indeed a country governed by the far right,” the mayor of a Budapest district, sociologist Gabor Eross, challenged him, denouncing “widespread corruption, the anti-LGBT+ campaign, electoral fraud, the ‘oligarchisation’ of the economy and the massive repression of civil society.”

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