18 May 2017

Macron’s discombobulation of the French political landscape.

By Richard Pooley

photo Robin Boag

Discombobulate has always been one of my favourite words.  Like its French equivalent bouleverser it is onomatopoeic: you can hear the world turning upside down.  And the election of Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency has certainly bouleversé le paysage politique français.  The past ten days have reminded me of the same period after the 2010 UK general election when British politicians suddenly had to work out how to put together a coalition government.  Nobody was quite sure what to do or say.  And the British people seemed equally puzzled.  Should they pat themselves on the back for unwittingly giving birth to this strange but rather attractive beast?  Or should they do what they could to strangle it as soon as possible?  In the end it lived for five years.

The French have an even odder beast to deal with: the creation overnight of a new political party – La République en marche – which Macron hopes will win enough seats in June’s parliamentary elections to enable him to galvanise France’s economy and reform her political system over the next five years.  No sooner had he become President-elect on 7 May than he removed himself as head of En Marche!, the political movement he launched in his home town of Amiens thirteen months ago.  And the name changed too.  Out went the exclamation mark, in came the republic.  So new is the name that nobody seems quite sure whether the e and/or the m should be capitalised.  And neither the media nor the pollsters have settled on a single acronym.  Is it LEM or REM?  I’m sticking with REM.

The big story of last week was the naming of 428 REM candidates for the parliamentary elections.  A few months ago Macron told his supporters that he was looking for people from outside the political establishment who would be interested in becoming députés in the National Assembly (the same as British MPs in the House of Commons).  He said that he wanted at least half of the candidates of what is now REM to come from “civil society”, i.e. anybody but a politician.  Half must be women.  Nobody with a criminal record would be accepted.  They would have to sign up to his reform programme and drop any previous party allegiance.  Macron made it clear that he was not discriminating against politicians; he wanted (and got) applications from mayors, departmental and regional politicians, and existing National Assembly députés.  However, there was one stipulation which appears not to have been explicit and may have been added only recently: any député who had served more than three five-year terms would be barred from standing under the REM banner.  As we shall see, Macron may come to regret this proviso.

Nearly 20,000 people applied to become an REM candidate before 7 May and the Secretary-General of REM, Richard Ferrand, admitted last week that c.v.’s are continuing to land on his desk.  Some 1,700 people were short-listed and interviewed, nearly all over the phone.  These were whittled down to the named 428, leaving 149 seats still to have a candidate allocated to them.  Macron has kept his promises: 52% are non-politicians and 214 are women.  The average age is 46.  Among the candidates from “civil society” are a glamorous woman ex-bullfighter from the Camargue, a brilliant mathematician and a top police commander.  24 existing Socialist députés are on the list but not a single one from the centre-right Republican Party. Yet.

Within hours of the list being published on Thursday 11 May, journalists were reporting mistakes in it.  One person had a criminal record (his name was instantly removed).  Several, including the multi-millionaire owner of Toulon rugby club, denied that they had offered themselves as candidates.  Cue snorts of derision from Left and Right, especially right-wing Republicans.  I listened to Richard Ferrand being interviewed the next morning by one of France’s most well-known presenters.  Ferrand was so honest that one could hear the presenter’s astonishment.  When asked why there were some erreurs in the list, Ferrand replied: “Yes, there are fourteen mistakes in our list” and explained why they had occurred.  When repeatedly asked who Macron would choose as his Prime Minister, Ferrand replied: “No, I can’t tell you who Mr Macron will choose… No, I really don’t know who it will be.  I don’t want to know because if I did, I would have to lie to you and say I don’t know.”  The presenter then asked why there were still 149 missing names and why the only députés on the list were Socialist.  He was probably hoping to embarrass Ferrand into giving a vague, defensive reply.  Everyone knows Macron is desperate to tempt enough existing Republican députés to join REM so as to rebut the charge of Marine Le Pen during the campaign that he represents a continuation of Francois Hollande’s failed Socialist Government.  But Ferrand was happy to admit Macron’s predicament: “We haven’t the full number because we are waiting to see if there is anybody from the Right who meets our criteria.”  Presenters and listeners are not used to such candid answers from politicians.  And the French appear to like Macron’s attempt to have many of them represented in the National Assembly by non-politicians; a poll on the same day as Ferrand’s interview showed that 76% of those questioned thought positively about REM’s list of 428.

Two-thirds also thought Manuel Valls, prime minister in Hollande’s government and Macron’s old boss, had not been treated badly by the new President.  Valls, having failed to become the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, gave his support to Macron. But he did not join En Marche! nor actively campaign for him.  On Tuesday last week he said that the Socialist Party was “dead” and that he would be part of “the presidential majority”.  He seemed to think that REM would automatically accept him as one of their candidates.  But they didn’t.  As Ferrand explained, Valls had served more than three terms as a député.  However, out of respect to an ex-prime minister, REM would not put up a candidate against him in his seat south of Paris.  Valls is furious at what he regards as his humiliating treatment by Macron.  He has made no secret in interviews and articles since that Macron now has a powerful enemy among his natural supporters.

And the other politicians?  Les poulets sans têtes comes to mind.  Marine Le Pen shut up for a whole week.  Her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the National Front’s two existing députés and the darling of the hardliners in the FN, has resigned from all her political posts in order to spend more time with her two-year old daughter.  Her grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has accused her of “desertion from the front line.”   Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, formerly a right-wing Republican, who set up his own party to stand in the first round (where he got a creditable 5%) and formed a united front with Marine Le Pen in the second, has swiftly uncoupled himself from the FN.  The presidential candidates of what used to be France’s two main political parties, Socialist Benoît Hamon and Republican François Fillon have disappeared from view.  The Socialist Party is leaderless and facing extinction.  Many existing Republican députés are rallying behind François Baroin, hoping that Nicolas Sarkozy’s ex Economy Minister can persuade their colleagues not to jump ship and join REM.  Baroin is one of the few established politicians to have gained from the presidential election campaign (see two of my recent articles). The other winner is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the ex-Socialist Government minister and Marxist founder of La France insoumise (France unbowed).  He took first place in two departments in the first round, including bucolic Dordogne (imagine Ken Livingstone winning the hearts and minds of those dwelling in the Cotswolds).  15% of French voters are expected to vote for FI.  Mind you, Mélenchon got into trouble last week.  He has parachuted himself into Marseilles where he intends to stand in what has always been a safe Socialist seat.  He said the Socialist Party was “in the soup” but used the word “bouillabaisse”, assuming this was a traditional Marseillaise dish.  The Socialist incumbent mocked him for not knowing that bouillabaisse is a “dish for tourists”.

And if French politicians were not already bouleversés, imagine how they must have felt on Friday when our very own ex-wunderkind, Tony Blair, dispensed “friendly advice” to Macron in an article in Le Monde.

Macron kept everyone waiting until Monday afternoon before announcing who his prime minister would be.  He chose Edouard Philippe, a Socialist when young but for a long time the right-hand man of Alain Juppé, the Republican mayor of Bordeaux and ex-prime minister.   Indeed it was Philippe who helped Juppé set up the UMP, the forerunner of the Republican Party. He’s 46, exactly the average age of the REM 428.  And he’s the perfect choice. Macron has chosen him despite some pretty waspish comments about him made by Philippe only a couple of months ago.  He is proof that Macron has the behind-the-scenes support of Juppé, still a much-admired politician.  And it is a blow to Baroin who only last week dismissed the idea that Philippe become prime minister as unthinkable.   REM has until this Thursday evening to announce their remaining candidates.  How many existing Republican députés will be among them or will they have to make do with more farmers, businesspeople and professionals?  If I were Macron, I wouldn’t be too worried. I think many French are rather enjoying the praise they are receiving from around the world for choosing to discombobulate their political class.

I have to add a coda to this article.  Shaw Sheet has a small scoop for you. My wife and I were having an aperitif with some neighbours two days after Macron won.  One of them lives in Paris but was born and raised in our village and still has a family home here. She is head of the English department at Sciences Po and was Macron’s English teacher when he was there.  I praised her for doing such a good job; his English is excellent. She revealed her secret.  She had told him to read the Economist magazine for the quality of its English.  He did so and became obsessed with Tony Blair, at the time doing his best to discombobulate the political landscape of Britain.  I’ll next see Isabelle in August, when she is down from Paris for the summer holidays.  I must remember to ask her whether she taught Macron the English synonym for bouleverser.


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