Previous accounts of the French elections and all that went with them were compared to boxing rounds. The parliamentary elections and their lead up were more like some kind of elaborate set of dances with a generous amount of tripping up other dancers on the floor. Abstentions and spoiled votes are par to the course but did not work in the presidential elections, however say something very different when looking at the two rounds of parliamentary elections that saw Macron’s new party the clear winner.
After naming conservative Édouard Philippe of Les Républicains, who is said to speak fluent German to show how seriously he takes the relationship with Germany, as his prime minister on the Monday directly after his election as president, Emmanuel Macron then picked Gerard Collomb, the veteran Socialist mayor of Lyon, as interior minister and government number two. Macron called Philippe “the prime minister of a government of unity and renewal to change France.” The announcement of the prime ministerial appointments was made almost immediately before Macron left for Berlin, where the French ambassador, Philippe Étienne, was then appointed senior policy adviser in good part because of his German experience.
Jean-Yves Le Drian, the outgoing PS defence minister and close friend of ex-President Francois Hollande, was named minister of “Europe and foreign affairs”, a new portfolio underlining the importance of Europe for Macron. Drian was initially supported on the Europe portfolio by junior minister Marielle de Sarnez, a centrist European expert who has been a member of the European parliament since 1999. Sylvie Goulard, a centrist MEP, a German and Italian speaker and a connoisseur of the inner workings of the EU, was named armed forces minister. He picked Bruno Le Maire, a German speaking right winger from Les Républicains, as his economy minister who stands for free market economic agenda and the privatisation of France’s employment offices, the end of subsidised jobs and capping of welfare benefits. Gérald Darmanin, another right winger, heads the ministry of ‘action and public accounts’. Francois Bayrou, the centrist leader of Modem, was named justice minister, and also put in charge of pushing through Mr Macron’s first law on cleaning up political life. Nicolas Hulot, a star ecologist and former TV presenter seen as a Gallic ‘David Attenborough’, was named ‘ecological transition’ minister, after refusing to join the cabinets of several previous administrations. Olympic fencing champion Laura Flessel, from the French island of Guadeloupe was named sports minister.
One of the toughest tasks fell on Muriel Pénicaud, the former human resources director of the Danone group, as employment minister. Macron intends to push through a series of decrees over coming months that will loosen French labour laws, but which unions have already warned they will oppose.
A bumpy start
He had announced his intention to have a slimmed down government of 15 ministers. In the event, some 22 people were named, half men, half women, including figures from civil society. A member of the Macron staff said that 16 were ‘full ministers’, two deputies and four secretaries of state. While gender parity was respected, commentators pointed out that only one of the top five roles went to a woman with the 10 other female appointees taking portfolios that included culture, labour, sports and health.
Problems followed when a minister in Mr Macron’s first cabinet, Richard Ferrand, escaped an investigation into claims that he benefited from a property deal while he ran a public health insurance fund. Then Marielle de Sarnez lodged a slander complaint against an MEP from FN party who accused her and 18 other colleagues of diverting funds available for parliamentary assistants. The accusations by Sophie Montel, made in letters to the EU fraud watchdog and Paris prosecutors, prompted an initial investigation that fell flat almost immediately. The attack on de Sarnez by Ms Montel was described as “clearly a counter-attack by the National Front which bent the rules of the parliament in a wholesale way”, by French ecology MEP Eva Joly.
Immediately after being elected, Macron went to Berlin to meet Angela Merkel, customarily the first stop for French presidents elect. The new president and the veteran chancellor used their first meeting to declare their determination to reclaim European unity now that France had overcome the immediate risk of radical populism that was threatening to undo the EU.
Meanwhile, as recriminations in FN continue without a great deal of media interest, Le Pen said that her manifesto pledges to leave the Euro and hold a referendum on leaving the EU were wrong. They were dropped for the June elections. The recently strong looking FN is now factionalised by those who follow her, those who believe in French supremacy and those who just prefer belligerent and challenging politics to consensual and conciliatory approaches.
Macron v populism
Now there is confirmation that the world’s leaders are fighting back against populism and nationalism. Macron’s admitted that his white knuckle hand shaking clinch with Trump, whereby the two appeared to be engaged in a squeezing duel that saw Trump break off first, was not innocent was unsurprising. He crushed Trump’s hand until his fingers began to appear to lose blood, knuckles whitening. It was said that each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity until knuckles turned white and jaws were clenched and faces tightening. It was no less apparent when Macron swerved to avoid shaking hands with Trump when meeting his NATO partners, clearly preferring to greet Angela Merkel first. Macron appears to have understood how Trump uses body language as a form of combat and is consequently resolved to fight him in kind.
He then won even greater approval when he made a speedy, clever and self-assured response to Donald Trump’s decision to pull the USA out of the Paris climate accord. “Make our planet great again,” said Macron, more or less recycling Trump’s own slogan in an exceptional address that was partly in English from the Elysée Palace soon after Trump had informed the world he was withdrawing from the global agreement.
Then came the legislativ elections on 11 and 18 June 2017 to elect the 577 members of the 15th National Assembly of the Fifth Republic. Four deputies were immediately elected in the first round by receiving over 50% of the first round vote. In the remaining 573 constituencies there were 572 two way contests in the second round and a three-way contest Macron’s REM, LR and FN in one constituency. The results were marred by a record low 48.70% turnout. However the second round saw Macron’s newly formed La République En Marche! (REM), together with it allied party Mouvement démocrate (MoDem), gain 308 and 42 seats of the 577, thus with 350 seats a convincing majority. There was again an exceptionally low turnout of 42.64% that cast some doubt on the popularity of the newly elected government.
Within days a series of resignations began. Four of Macron’s ministerial appointments François Bayrou, Marielle de Sarnez, Richard Ferrand and Sylvie Goulard all resigned within 48 hours. Bayrou, the MoDem president announced he was standing down; he was replaced by Nicole Belloubet, a figure almost unknown to the wider public and first woman nominated to France’s constitutional council. A few minutes later, Marielle de Sarnez, minister for European affairs’ announced she would also go. She was replaced by Nathalie Loiseau, a former diplomat and academic administrator.
Sylvie Goulard, a former MEP, said she was leaving the government to concentrate on fighting allegations; she was replaced by Florence Parly, a high ranking French civil servant and former business leader. Then Richard Ferrand, minister for territorial integrity and secretary general of Macron’s party, resigned over a separate nepotism scandal. That is an ongoing affair that is yet to be resolved.
The three MoDem ministers quit when MEPs including each of them became the subject of an investigation after a complaint by a member of FN who is also the subject of an inquiry into fake jobs. Bayrou denounced what he referred to as a “society of perpetual and universal denunciation”, insisting that his party and he could prove “there were never any fake jobs”. None of the four ministers who stood down has been charged with any offence and all have denied wrongdoing. However, with a convincing enough majority Macron’s REM with 308 seats, with also the support of a faction of Les Républicains and continuing support of MoDem has more or less dropped the arrangement with Bayrou’s party to go alone although the relationship will remain close.
All in all, it has been an interesting set of elections. Much seems to have happened between the presidential and legislative rounds, then a lot since. Macron is restating his intent to end dirty politics, hence the resignations, so his anti-corruption campaign appears to be taken seriously. He has consolidated the relationship with Germany, made his intention of seeing through EU reforms and consolidation and increased strength of the union. He has defiantly behaved with and spoken out against Trump, especially on the climate change issue and has also been conciliatory toward the UK should they wish to end the Brexit negotiations. Macron has been surprisingly friendly and hospitable toward May, albeit he has warned that the EU negotiations will be tough and not bow down to UK demands and once completed the UK will be fully out rather than having one foot still in. In other words, they will be hard line but also that a strong relationship will be maintained in particular areas such as national security and cooperation after UK departure from the EU.
Because of the low turnout and popular resistance to some of his proposed reforms it is said Macron must be prepared to see people out on the streets protesting. Jean-Luc Mélenchon leader of La France Insoumise has already stood on the steps of the Assemblée Nationale, alongside the other 16 newly elected MPs from his hard left party with a clenched fist, shouting “Resistance”. His party has only 17 seats out of 577 but is unified unlike the runnersup, the Républicains, which won 112 seat, but is at present tearing itself apart, or the PS which is also calamitously divided with just 29 seats compared to the 295 they won in 2012. Although FN won only 10 seats, their leader Marine Le Pen will not be silent now that she finally has a seat in the Assembly.
Édouard Philippe has yet to announce the final government although most ministers are expected to be as had, including new appointments. However, REM wants to immediately start working toward resolving many of the socially inequitable situations in the French state that may gain them many more friends than opponents. It looks like a ‘young’ president who was without a party only a year ago has broken the back of the established order, its parties and maybe a figurehead of a great deal of necessary economic and social reform in France along with a great drive toward federalism after reforms in the EU. The French German axis at the core of the EU will contribute to French change, especially confidence. It looks like it will be an interesting five years with outcomes that may go either way.