OPINION: What Macron can do to turn the tide, but there’s a risk

After announcing his long-awaited and nightmarish cabinet reshuffle the under-pressure French president Emmanuel Macron needs a second wind. He should take a step back to allow the more popular Edouard Philippe to become a traditional Gaullist Prime Minister, argues veteran France correspondent John Lichfield. Even if there are risks.

OPINION: What Macron can do to turn the tide, but there's a risk
Photo: AFP

The 21st century French cabinet reshuffle is a nightmare – like solving a Rubik’s Cube while playing three-dimensional chess.

Reshuffles have never been easy but consider the calculations required in the furious anti-political climate and media glare of 2018.

The new team has to be gender-balanced. It has to reflect the government’s competing factions.

It has to be split fairly between career politicians and personalities lassooed from the “real world”. The potential ministers have to be frisked, and frisked again, for scandals-in-waiting.

The reshuffle negotiations completed today – President Emmanuel Macron’s first – were the most protracted in the 60 year history of the Fifth Republic.  It is two weeks since the interior minister, Gérard Collomb, resigned giving President Macron and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe an opportunity to reboot their unpopular government.

READ ALSO: Macron finally ends suspense and names new government

The results in the end are limited – comparatively few changes, no spectacular recruits on the political transfer market and no ritual resignation of the Philippe government to make way for a “Philippe II”.

Despite his poor poll ratings (19 per cent in one recent survey, 29 per cent in another), the political obituaries for President Macron in the right-wing UK press are premature. He does, however, need to find a second wind.

This reshuffle may give him one – not because of the qualities of his new ministers but because of the impatience and ambition of an old one, the Prime Minister, Mr Philippe.

An additional source of complexity in this remaniement (reshuffle) was a polite arm-wrestling contest between President and Prime Minister. 

Edouard Philippe did not get all that he wanted. A close Macron ally, the ex-Socialist Christopher Castaner, took the high-profile position of interior minister, not a Philippe nominee from the centre-right.

Philippe is 47 – young for a French Prime Minister but seven years older than Macron.

As the former mayor of Le Havre, he has more experience of grass-roots politics than the President. He is also more popular. He was given a 51 per cent approval rating in one poll at the weekend.

'He should now withdraw a little and allow Edouard Philippe to become a true Gaullist Prime Minister'

The tall, bearded Phlippe – he resembles a bicycling monarch from a north European state – has been a discreet figure as PM. He now seems to be taking advantage of Macron’s struggles to emerge as an independent player in his own right.

That does not necessarily mean a “split” – yet. Philippe said last week that it would be impossible to insert “the start of the beginning of a piece of a cigarette paper” between himself and his boss.

Talk of Philippe returning to his own centre-right political family to challenge the centrist Macron for the presidency in 2022 is premature. It is not entirely impossible.

If Macron is clever, he will use Philippe’s energy and ambition to his own advantage. In the two-headed system of government invented by Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s, the President of the Republic was supposed to be the wise, final arbiter of policy, aloof from the day to day irritations and humiliations of power.

The Prime Minister became a kind of shock-absorber, a whipping boy, who could be replaced when “the people” revolted.

Nicolas Sarkozy destroyed that system in 2007-12, acting as his own Prime Minister in all but name. He became the whipping boy. It was his Prime Minister, François Fillon who remained popular. Something similar is happening to Macron.

When he was elected last year, Emmanuel Macron promised to re-invent the “Jupiterian”, De Gaulle style of presidency for the modern age.

He has carried out several of his campaign promises, simplifying the labyrinthine labour code and starting the reform of the state railway company. On the Jupiter question he has failed, managing to seem arrogant rather than aloof, interfering rather than wise.

He should now withdraw a little and allow Edouard Philippe to become a true Prime Minister on the Gaullist model.

It may well turn out that Philippe, who is nobody’s fool, has better antennae for day to day government than the President.

There are obvious dangers. Philippe might become even more popular. Macron’s age makes it awkward for him to play the elder statesman.

A De Gaulle-type presidency – the strategic general safely distant from the firing line – is difficult to carry off in the age of social media and 24-hour news.

Macron cannot step back entirely.  He would be wise, all the same, to channel, and maybe use up, his Prime Minister’s energy and his popularity.  

John Lichfield is a former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield

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Macron rules out ‘national unity government’ for France

French president Emmanuel Macron has promised a new style of government based on 'listening and respect' - but did not announce an alliance with any other parties that would give him a majority in parliament.

Macron rules out 'national unity government' for France

Macron has been holding meetings with all other party leaders in an attempt to break the deadlock in parliament after his group lost its majority in Sunday’s elections, but in a live TV address to the nation he did not announce an alliance.

Instead he said that a new style of government was called for, saying: “The responsibility of the presidential majority is therefore to expand, either by building a coalition contract or by building majorities text by text.”

He rejected the idea of forming a “government of national unity” with all parties, saying that the present situation does not justify it.

READ ALSO Can Macron dissolve the French parliament?

But he said that opposition groups have signalled that: “They are available to advance on major topics” such as the cost of living, jobs, energy, climate and health.”

He said: “We must learn how to govern differently, by dialogue, respect, and listening

“This must mean making agreements, through dialogue, respect, and hard work. The country has made its desire for change clear.”  

Speaking for just eight minutes in the gardens of the Elysée, Macron added: “I cannot ignore the fractures and strong divisions that traverse our country.”   

He said urgent draft laws, especially to alleviate the impact of inflation and rising energy prices, would be submitted to parliament over the summer.

Macron called on the opposition parties to “clarify in all transparency, in the coming days, how far they are willing to go” in their support of such measures, which he said would not be financed by higher taxes.

He added that he himself had been re-elected in April on a platform of “ambitious reform” which he expected to carry out.

The parliamentary impasse should not lead to “stagnation”, Macron said, but to “dialogue and the willingness to listen to each other”.

Macron’s centrist group Ensemble (Together) ended Sunday’s elections as the largest group in parliament – but with 245 seats they are 44 short of an absolute majority.

The leftist coalition Nupes – an electoral alliance of the hard-left La France Insoumise, the centre-left Parti Socialiste, the Greens and the Communists – got a total of 131.

Meanwhile Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National got 89 seats and the centre-right Les Républicains got 61 seats. 

With deadlock in parliament, Macron has been holding meetings over the last two days with the party leaders in the attempt to create an alliance that will allow him to pass legislation over the next five years.

Reacting to Macron’s speech, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the leftist alliance which is the second largest group in parliament, said: “He was elected because most French people did not want the extreme right – the French people have rejected the president’s proposals.

“Nothing can change the choice of the French people.”

Macron’s position as president is not directly threatened by the lack of a majority, but it will mean that passing any legislation – which must be agreed by parliament – will be very difficult.

While negotiations between all parties will continue, Macron himself heads to Brussels on Thursday for an EU summit.