If we have learned one thing about Emmanuel Macron in the first few days of his presidency, it is that he will not be rushed. After naming France’s new prime minister, Edouard Philippe, on May 16, Macron delayed the announcement of his new cabinet by 24 hours. The explanation offered was that Macron wanted the recently created Higher Authority for Transparency in Public Life to carry out thorough background checks on all the ministerial team. “Monsieur Propre” – Mr Clean – is taking no chances.
It will become clear in late June, after voters head to the polls again in France’s legislative elections, whether the decision to appoint Philippe – of the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) – has been an astute tactical manoeuvre or a monumental political flop.
A long-time adviser of former prime minister Alain Juppé, Philippe acted as his official spokesman during the latter’s ill-fated campaign in November’s presidential primary. The Mayor of Le Havre, Philippe is also a member of the National Assembly and ticks a number of boxes for Macron. But perhaps the outstanding aspect of his CV is that he worked alongside Juppé in 2002 to merge the three parties of the right into one, the UMP, forerunner of Les Républicains.
Paradoxically, his appointment is designed to splinter the right. While that might seem like an act of betrayal, the Juppéiste wing of Les Républicains was always deeply uneasy with the rightwards shift under their presidential candidate, François Fillon. Whatever his feelings about the Fillon affair during the presidential campaign, Philippe had the good sense to keep them to himself.
A multicoloured umbrella
When Macron and Philippe finally announced their government on May 17, it comprised 11 women and 11 men. It represents an attempt to satisfy the expectations of left, right and centre that have rallied to Macron, as well as those of what the French press calls “les Marcheurs”, those who supported Macron from the earliest stages of his campaign in his En Marche! movement.
Four ministers come from the left-wing Parti Socialiste (PS) and two each from the centrist Modem party, the Left Radicals and Les Républicains (in addition to Philippe). The others are not so obviously politically aligned, but they mostly have experience of politics, either at the local level, as civil servants or as former special advisers to ministers. The appointment of non-parliamentarians may seem unusual to the British way of thinking, but it is perfectly normal in other political cultures and common in French politic: think of Macron’s own appointment as a minister under Hollande.
After Philippe, the first minister in terms of protocol is Gérard Collomb, Socialist senator and mayor for Lyon, who supported Macron from the outset and has been appointed minister of the interior. As a counterpoint to Collomb, the centrist François Bayrou, who decided in February not to run in his own right but to support Macron, is justice minister.
Between these two, in protocol terms, is Nicolas Hulot, a former television presenter and high-profile environmentalist, who has enormous popular credibility. Hulot has declined offers to serve under three previous presidents, so his acceptance of Macron’s offer is a real coup. To understand what his appointment means, imagine Macron persuading Zinedine Zidane to be sports minister. In fact, sport has been allocated to Laure Flessel, five-time Olympic fencing medallist, underlining Marcon’s commitment to the Paris bid to host the 2024 Olympics. The bid team were quick to tweet their congratulations.
In domestic terms, Hulot’s nomination confirms France’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement and also to dropping the proposed new airport at Notre-Dame des Landes, near Nantes, which has been the scene of violent clashes between protesters and police.
These three all have the status of ministers of state. After them come the ministries of defence and of foreign affairs. Jean-Yves Le Drian, defence minister in the previous administration has moved to become minister of European and Foreign Affairs at the Quai d’Orsay. The ministry of defence has been “retro-restyled” as the Ministère des Armées and given to, Sylvie Goulard, centrist MEP and early convert to En Marche. Goulard’s experience in Brussels and Strasbourg underlines the emphasis Macron places on France’s role within the European defence community.
Macron’s plan in motion
Perhaps the least anticipated appointments come from the right. Gérald Darmanin, the LR mayor of the northern city of Tourcoing and one of the initiators of the rally to Macron, has been put in charge of public accounts. But the most prominent appointee is Bruno Le Maire, who stood in the right-wing primary, as finance minister. Not surprisingly, both men risk being expelled de facto from their party and Le Maire is standing in the general election on a ticket for Marcon’s En Marche party.
With Labour relations lying at the heart of the reforms that Macron wants to carry out, he has recruited Muriel Penicaud, whose political experience was gained working with the Socialist Martine Aubry in the early 1990s. Although Penicaud has worked in the private sector for the last decade, her appointment points towards Macron’s desire to open a dialogue with the trades unions rather than enter a period of confrontation.
Some of these appointments may be short-lived. Six of the ministers are standing in the general election, and Macron has made it clear that if they do not win their seats, they must resign from government. He’s also told those who are mayors of French cities (Philippe, Collomb, Bayrou) that they must stand down from their local roles and focus on the job.
It might not be pretty, but Macron has achieved the first stage of his plan, and polls show support for his party is growing ahead of the June elections. The PS was already in disarray, the centre had largely rallied to Macron and now the friable French right has begun to splinter. The far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was always beyond the pale. And meanwhile we still don’t know if the far-right Marine Le Pen is going to actually stand in the general election or if it’s too risky. Midnight on May 19 is the closing date.