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OPINION: Macron's new government is 'veering to the right'? Hardly

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Macron's new government is 'veering to the right'? Hardly
France's President Emmanuel Macron at his press conference on Tuesday. Photo by Ludovic MARIN / AFP

President Emmanuel Macron has “veered to the right” so frequently - if you believe the French media - that he should by now be more nationalist-authoritarian-racist than Marine Le Pen, writes John Lichfield.


The President’s new government and his two-hour Prime Time press conference on Tuesday evening are all being interpreted as, guess what, a “move to the Right”.

Symbolically and rhetorically, there may be some truth in that claim. Macron declared: “I want France to remain France” -  a statement which recalls the racial obsessions and delusions of Eric Zemmour.

But Macron’s France is not Zemmour’s France. The President went on to promise a France that was “stronger but fairer”. He said that he wanted a France in which social barriers to success were dissolved. He spoke of a France in which people from all classes and ethnic origins could aspire to advance themselves with ambition and hard-work.


This was, if anything, a return to the origins of Macronism, a would-be revolution of the Centre which rejected or transcended the dogma of both Right and Left.

After seven years that revolution has failed - or at least it has failed to convince French people that its successes amount to much more than the piecemeal reformism of previous centre-right and centre-left presidents.

Macron’s two-hour press conference and the appointment of the 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as Prime Minister were therefore belated cries of alarm.

Marine Le Pen’s Far Right is booming in the opinion polls. Just like Donald Trump in the USA, she surfs on domestic and international crises - from immigration to climate change - without offering any coherent response to them. Macron was at his most animated on Tuesday - and most eloquent - when he was attacking what he called the “colère facile”(simplistic anger) promoted by Le Pen.

The President faces the prospect of a humiliating ten-point defeat by Le Pen’s Rassemblement National in the European elections in June. Such a defeat would be followed by a powerless final three years in office and the growing risk (still by no means a certainty) of a Le Pen victory in 2027.

Tuesday’s press conference was therefore a campaign event - a double campaign event. It was the beginning of the most significant European election campaign that France has known. It also signalled the start of the battle for the post-Macron presidency (and the soul of France) in 2027.

It foreshadowed a radical change in Macron’s approach to government but not necessarily a change in policy. Until now Macron’s approach has been to reform France for its own good - whether France wanted the reforms or not. That take-the-medicine approach is now over or will be much watered down.

I wrote last week: “Macron’s people have long argued that they have obtained little credit for their achievements, ranging from a sharp reduction in unemployment to a substantial reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions.

“The President hopes that the next three years, will be the opposite: little of substance will be done but the new PM will sell a series of softer, atmospheric reforms and a story of success to the French people.”


That was maybe a touch harsh. There was some substance in the flurry of reforms and reformlets announced or re-announced by Macron.

There will be some new legislation on employment law and to try to break down monopolies and social and economic barriers to competition and advancement.

However, many of the changes that he promised - school uniforms, school diploma ceremonies, salary increases and tax changes for the lower middle classes, wider access to culture - can be achieved  without changes in the law.

The full-frontal battles with parliament will end or become less central. Macron’s raid on the centre-right Les Républicains (LR)  to capture Rachida Dati as culture minister was an act of revenge for their refusal to support the government on pension reform and immigration. It also destroyed all hope of future parliamentary deals with the LR.

Dati’s arrival is one reason why the French media says the new government will be more right wing (despite the fact that the new PM, Gabriel Attal, came originally from the Left).


As culture minister, she will have little impact on overall government policy. Her task will be to divert some of the generous state budget for culture away from the usual suspects of the Paris arts establishment and towards the provinces and the middle classes. That will infuriate the bo-bo Left but is not necessarily “right wing”.

The Big Beasts in government whose political DNA is from the right - Bruno Le Maire at finance and Gérald Darmanin at Interior - have been in every Macron-era administration since 2017.

The accusation of a lurch to the Right misses the point. The promotion of Attal and the sprawling agenda described by Macron on Tuesday is something else – an attempt to create a kind of populist centrism.

Prime ministers in France are traditionally managers. Attal has been appointed as a super Spin Doctor, someone who can give at least an appearance of energy and achievement to the final years of Macron’s reign. His performance in his first Prime Ministerial questions on Monday was witty and aggressive.

Macron’s new agenda is so disparate (and maybe also desperate) that it risks missing its electoral targets in the non-ideological middle of the middle class. But Attal’s pugnacity and eloquence could make populist centrism attractive enough to chop back the Far Right double-figure lead in the Euro elections in June.

Let's hope so.

You don’t have to be right wing to want “France to be France”. I also want France to be France but I have a very different understanding of what “makes France France” than Eric Zemmour or Marine Le Pen.


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