PARIS – Embracing the European Union could be seen as a risky move for politicians given Britain's decision to abandon the bloc and the renewed popularity of nationalist parties. But French presidential front-runner Emmanuel Macron is doing just that.
Macron, 39, an independent centrist with pro-free market views, is fiercely promoting common European ideals of peace, prosperity and freedom with a blitz of campaign events across France and Europe to explain to voters why the EU matters.
While British Prime Minister Theresa May will officially trigger divorce proceedings from the bloc Wednesday, Macron's campaign team held pro-Europe events in cities around France over the weekend as the EU marked its 60th birthday.
The former French economy minister described himself as an "enthusiastic, yet lucid European" in a joint interview with French newspaper Liberation and Italian newspaper last week. He said with Britain leaving, the bloc needs to build a new leadership base anchored by France and Germany.
The EU needs "urgent" reforms because "for the first time, many foreign leaders openly want a weakening of Europe: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, as well as the main authoritarian leaders of the Middle East," Macron said.
One of the reforms he advocates is new cooperation on defense, a move he said would be operated by France and Germany in association with Italy, Spain and possibly the United Kingdom, even after its exit from the EU.
To improve the continent's security and fight against terrorism, Macron wants the bloc to be able to deploy at least 5,000 European border guards to "strengthen controls at the external borders" of the Schengen passport-free travel zone.
He also wants the 19 nations that use the euro as their official currency to harmonize their tax policies to allow for fairer economic competition between companies that want to work in other countries.
Polls suggest Macron and Marine Le Pen, the anti-immigration, anti-European Union leader of the National Front, are likely to be the two top finishers in the first round of the presidential vote on April 23. If that happens, Le Pen and Macron would go head-to-head in a May 7 runoff.
Le Pen wants to pull France from the euro currency and from the European Union.
On Monday, she described Macron as "an immigrationist" because he has backed German Chancellor Angela Merkel's policies to welcome refugees from Syria.
Macron met with Merkel earlier this month in Berlin, where he called for a "new Franco-German deal" that would involve "much more structured cooperation" on investment, on European border security, and on defense issues — in particular in the Middle East and Africa.
"You cannot be tentatively European; otherwise it's already lost," the candidate told Liberation and La Repubblica. "Anti-Europeans' violence is such that we need to repeat over and over what Europe has given us and can still give us, if we are involved in changing it....What Marine Le Pen wants is to recreate conflicts in Europe."
The continent's future is a strong, recurrent theme in the French presidential campaign. Politicians acknowledge a growing discontent with EU institutions, often seen by voters as distant and lacking democratic legitimacy.
Conservative contender Francois Fillon advocates for a powerful Europe that would at the same time respect every nation's sovereignty.
Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon wants a more democratic Europe, with representatives of national parliaments being entitled to gather and discuss the budget of the Eurozone.
Far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon harshly criticizes free market policies and strict budget rules that he says were imposed in the EU by Germany. He has pledged to renegotiate the European treaties and says if the plan fails, he would move to take France out of the EU.
The 27 nations that will make up the European Union once Britain exits the bloc renewed their vow of unity Saturday in the face of crises that are increasingly testing the bonds between members.
Acknowledging that there won't be agreement on every issue, EU leaders also approved giving member nations more freedom to form partial alliances when unanimity is out of reach.
"We have united for the better. Europe is our common future," the declaration said.