Macron is in the Elysée because of who he is not

No-one initially expected M Macron to end up as president, so his movement might yet defy the odds and present him with the stable majority government he needs if he is to have any hope of implementing his ambitious programme to modernise France and, especially, to improve its economy.

24 May 2017
By Simon Heffer

The first opinion poll published after Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the presidential election – a victory entirely unsurprising once one realised who his opponent would be – showed 43% expressed themselves as ‘satisfied’ with him and the government he had just appointed.

His newly re-named République en marche party has been relaunched – or, rather, assembled – in order to fight the legislative elections on June 11 and 18.

It will be an achievement for this scratch army to win enough places in the Assemblée Nationale to form a government, so it looks as though France may be facing either a period of cohabitation or an attempt to put together a coalition government.

Having said that, no-one initially expected M Macron to end up as president, so his movement might yet defy the odds and present him with the stable majority government he needs if he is to have any hope of implementing his ambitious programme to modernise France and, especially, to improve its economy.

It is not just that M Macron doesn’t really have a party – and, indeed, that a few of those named as candidates for the June elections turned out to be unsuitable, such is the makeshift nature of REM. It is also that he has ended up in the Elysée Palace because of who he is not, rather than who he is.

He may appear to have broken the mould of French politics, having allegedly not come from either of the mainstream parties of left or right. But he did, whatever his propaganda says, come from one of them: he was part of the Hollande debacle as one of the former president’s finance ministers.

He has sought to compensate for this slightly embarrassing heritage by picking a prime minister from the conservative tradition, in the shape of Edouard Philippe, the mayor of Le Havre, and by assembling a government from left, right and centre.

But if the short history of democratic European politics teaches us anything, it is that governments that seek to be all things to all people are doomed to impotence and, usually for one if not all parties who comprise them, disaster: anyone who doubts that should ask what is left of the Liberal Democrats in Britain, who shored up David Cameron’s coalition from 2010 to 2015.

Also, the motivation of voters in the June election will be very different from when the same people were, just a few weeks ago, choosing a new head of state.

They are more likely to vote on a local rather than a national basis. The choice is less absolute, not least in that there is no risk of choosing a president who might damage France because of her hard-line views.

Nor will they be asked to vote for a Républicains candidate who, together with his wife, is under investigation for possible criminal activity. The sponsorship of

M Philippe by Alain Juppé, who was defeated for his party’s candidacy, suggests that the prime minister can rely on the support of a better vintage of crook (M Juppé himself has a conviction for the misuse of public funds) than offered by the unfortunate M Fillon.

The Macron cabinet, a model by which French voters will be asked to judge what might happen in the next five years, has elements of cynicism and cunning. By including people from the right, notably the former Sarkozyste Bruno Le Maire in M Macron’s old job as finance minister, the new president is daring the strongest extant party in the country – Les Républicains – to take him on. To appoint Gérard Collomb, a socialist, as interior minister might be seen as an attempt to neutralise the Parti Socialiste, but that party had effectively neutralised itself.

Another man for whom a pay day has come again is François Bayrou, leader of the centrists, but one who from 1993 to 1997 served in right of centre administrations. There is no suggestion that anyone in the team has been chosen on executive ability, proven by the exact division of posts between 11 men and 11 women; ability has become a consideration secondary to gender, and suggests the sort of gesture politics that might earn M Macron the adulation of liberals but which in the end will contribute little to the rebuilding of France.

That only one woman – Sylvie Goulard – has landed a senior post, at defence, suggests M Macron’s commitment to equality may not be all it seems. Similarly, the appointment of Nicolas Hulot, a high-profile environmentalist, as ecology minister suggests an element of considered tokenism.

Despite the defection of Messieurs Philippe, Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin from the right to join the new administration, and the support of nearly 170 senior Républicains figures who claim a ‘transformation’ is happening in French politics, the Républicains party is still largely together, and will put up a substantial fight in the elections. Should it win a majority – and that is not impossible – M Macron’s plans will be in tatters almost before he has even started.

He is in any case burdened with the fact that 49.4% of first-round voters in April voted for an anti-EU candidate, and that France’s economic woes are blamed by about half the population on an overvalued currency and a German-dictated austerity policy.

And some ruthlessly ambitious Républicains – notably Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet – have had their noses put out of joint by not being invited to join the Macron team, and are set on revenge:

Mme Kosciusko-Morizet was even suggested for the post of prime minister, but ended with nothing.

In the end, though, it is down to the French people: and, given the huge abstention in the second round of the presidential election, I suspect it is not going to be an easy ride for President Macron.

Simon Heffer is also a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

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