On Monday morning, Emmanuel Macron had won the greatest accumulator bet in the history of modern French politics. Elected 8th president of the Fifth Republic with two thirds of the vote last month, he’d gone on to win a clear majority of 308 MPs (out of 577) for En Marche!, the party he’d founded a mere 14 months ago. He had split the Right, now reduced to a rump of 136 bitterly feuding old men (and a few women); crushed the Socialists, and sent back the Front National to eight seats in the backbenches.
On Tuesday, assured of a full majority in the National Assembly and beholden to no-one, Macron started to clean house with a ruthlessness rarely seen even in unsentimental France.
First, Macron fired his Frank Underwood: he let go his kingmaker and enforcer-in-chief, Richard Ferrand, a Breton Socialist Party machine man who joined En Marche! at the outset and became its Secretary General. Ferrand had found crucial early financing for the fledgling, fast-growing movement — which requires no membership fee from its followers. Named Minister for Territorial Cohesion, he was poised to become de facto Chief Whip, a post that doesn’t officially exist in the French system for a function as essential as anywhere else.
On Sunday, Ferrand was easily re-elected in his Finistère constituency as part of the En Marche tidal wave, despite having been fingered by Le Canard Enchaîné, France’s answer to Private Eye, for allegedly encouraging his former employers to rent a choice piece of property from his girlfriend, as well as employing members of that same girlfriend’s and his own family as parliamentary assistants, à la François Fillon. (Ferrand denied all wrongdoing throughout the campaign.)
On Monday, Ferrand announced in a somewhat strangled voice that he was foremost an MP and, really, would rather aim for the leadership of the EM Parliamentary group than stay in the Cabinet.
On Tuesday, just as PM Édouard Philippe protested that the traditional post-legislative elections reshuffle would be “only technical”, the Defence Minister, Sylvie Goulard, a well-regarded former Modem (centrist) MEP, let it be known in a formal statement that she would not remain at her key Cabinet post. “Should an investigation into the employment of my Brussels parliamentary assistants be conducted, I want to be able to present my side of the story in all independence”, it stated.
There was very little doubt that Goulard’s move had been carefully choreographed with Philippe and Macron. The ultimate aim is to push out Modem’s two big beasts, Justice Minister François Bayrou, and his longtime acolyte, Marielle de Sarnez, an influential Paris MP, who’d brought Macron critical support and votes back in February.
Both have just been re-elected. Both, far more than Goulard, have been targeted by the press and the European Parliament for allegedly employing their Brussels parliamentary assistants on constituency and party matters — accusations unpleasantly similar to those levied against Marine Le Pen during the campaign.
Embarrassingly, it’s Bayrou who is in charge of the new Law for Transparency and the Moralisation of Politics. Even more embarrassingly, he took to calling journalists at the national broadcaster to complain about a forthcoming investigative programme on Modem’s creative use of Euro parliamentary assistants’s salaries.
Bayrou, a Gascony farmer and horse breeder, has been a prickly figure in French politics for over a quarter century. He is famous for picking fights, including once with Simone Veil, the grand old Dame of French politics, an Auschwitz survivor who became the first President of the European Parliament after serving Giscard d’Estaing with distinction as Health Minister.
He was three times a Presidential candidate, never truly expecting to win, but embodying France’s almost vanished Christian-Democrat tradition from the Fourth Republic. (France’s Centrists, like English Whigs, are a resilient political palimpsest in regional party politics.) Each time Bayrou parlayed his vote count, to the Left or to the Right, into continued political existence, if not always a Cabinet job.
As Justice Minister, he expected to become the Cabinet’s senior figure, a man owed all deference even by the young PM Philippe, whom he immediately took to patronising in public. This became apparent in the course of negotiating safe seats for Modem MP candidates. Bayrou, flatly refusing Macron’s and Édouard Philippe’s first offer, demanded a hundred, twice as many as offered, and grudgingly accepted about 60 — with whom he still expected to make up En Marche!’s crucial majority in the house.
This was not to be. Increasingly giving in to election fatigue (participation fell from 78 per cent on 23 April, the first round of the Presidential election, to a meagre 43 per cent three days ago), the French, in effect, said: yes, we meant it the first time when we elected Macron, now get on with it — and voted En Marche! with both hands. Old warhorses, regional barons Left and Right, flavour-of-last-year were equally sent to pasture. Reporters saw voters come into their polling stations, stare at the names of the candidates, sometimes over a dozen, ask “Which one is the Macroniste?” — and vote for someone they’d never even heard of.
(This approach had first been tried out by the wily François Mitterrand just after his 1981 victory, when he called a general election that wasn’t, at the time, automatically slotted after the Presidential one. A man of the Right in his youth, Mitterrand pronounced that the French were légitimistes, the word used by Royalists to support the Bourbon monarchy; and sure enough, he got a National Assembly chock-full of untried young Socialist MPs, numbering among many others the young Ségolène Royal and François Hollande.)
The full Cabinet will be announced on Wednesday: it is possible that Bayrou will still be in it. There have been noises from Marielle de Sarnez that she, too, may step down from the European affairs portfolio, possibly as a propitiatory sacrifice to save her old friend and mentor Bayrou: the departure of all three Modem ministers might look like the bloodbath it’s intended to be.
At any rate, the message is now perfectly clear. Emmanuel Macron is only ready to tolerate accommodations tactically, does not care to be held to ransom, and possesses one of the cardinal virtues of the true statesman, political ingratitude.
As he prepares to tackle the reform of France’s unwieldy employment law — a 3,500-page pile which he has already announced he will slash through ordinances rather than a vote in Parliament, in order to reduce the time in which the unions might orchestrate street demonstrations — he has put his most visible Cabinet annoyance on notice, has curtailed his contacts with the press (he will be the first Fifth Republic French president not to give a television interview on Bastille Day), and gives every indication that far from being the François Hollande clone he was described as by his unlucky opponents, he only follows his hapless predecessor’s footsteps with the intention of doing the exact opposite.
His latest admirer, one Nicolas Sarkozy, has the last word — for now: “He is de Gaulle crossed with Justin Trudeau.”
Update: François Bayrou announced on Wednesday morning that he would not take a post in the reshuffled Philippe Cabinet.