Monday, 22 May 2017

Putting his best foot forward

President Macron must have carefully studied the video of his predecessor’s first visit to Berlin in May 2012. Many remember how the newly elected President Hollande looked awkward and flat-footed as he was firmly pulled to the right side of the red carpet by Angela Merkel during the welcoming ceremony and then tapped on the arm after the review of the troops to turn around and take the salute from the commanding officer. By all accounts, the rest of his trip did not go well either and he came away, as The Financial Times put it, “with a flea in his ear” for apparently being too pushy with Merkel about French ideas for reform of the European Union.

Just five years later, the newly elected President Macron seems to have learnt a lot from these mistakes and it was instructive to watch the TV footage of his visit to Berlin at the beginning of last week. He knew exactly on which side of the red carpet to walk, turned at exactly the right moment to take the salute and, according to reports, pledged that France would do its bit to restore its economic and financial credibility before asking Germany to loosen up its rigid positions on the Euro. To the pleasant surprise of the French press, Chancellor Merkel did not rule out future amendments to the European treaties in the press conference that followed their meeting.

Back in Paris, Macron’s first week in office has gone very much his way as well. The appointment of Edouard Philippe, a moderate member of les Républicains and an ally of Alain Juppé, as Prime Minister on Monday and the composition of his government, announced on Wednesday, have fulfilled a campaign promise: to form a government from both sides of the left/right divide. The resulting team has 22 ministers, eleven men and eleven women, a mix of fresh faces from civil society and a patina of experienced politicians that make it look both new and experienced. The key finance ministry has been entrusted to two men from Les Républicains, in a clever and apparently successful move to reassure the French business community: Bruno Le Maire, who was a candidate in last November’s primary and a 34-year old rising star from the same party, Gérald Darmanin, a former close ally of Nicholas Sarkozy. Le Maire speaks passable German, a rare quality among French politicians, and immediately announced that he would be seeking an early meeting with the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, as if to underscore the President’s commitment to reform in France. Darmanin, who will be in charge of the budget, announced, to the relief of many business leaders, that a new pay-as-you-go income tax scheme, due to be introduced at the beginning of next year, would be postponed. Many consider that it will be dropped altogether. 

Jean-Yves Le Drian, the highly respected defence minister under Hollande has, somewhat surprisingly, been moved to the Quai d’Orsay, his place taken by Sylvie Goulard, an MEP and an early Macron supporter. With her network of European contacts and knowledge of German, English and Italian, she strengthens Macron’s European credentials and will be a definite asset in the forthcoming discussions about a European defence initiative. Reports suggest that Macron was keen to establish his own authority over French defence policy after a period in which Le Drian and his powerful chief of staff had reputedly made the ministry a state within a state. A further sign, after his inaugural drive up the Champs Elysées in a military vehicle, that the young and relatively inexperienced Macron intends to stamp his own authority on this vital area of national policy.

Another much commented appointment is that of a popular environmental activist and former TV star, Nicolas Hulot, to be minister of “ecological transition”. Hulot had been approached by former presidents to play a role in government but had always pointedly refused. It is unclear why he has changed his mind this time, apart from the fact that, at the age of 62, it is probably the last opportunity he will get. Given his outspoken views, there are mutterings that he will fall at the first political hurdle the President asks him to jump. That being said, in his first media interviews he has made all the right noises, repeating the official commitment to reduce the share of nuclear power in electricity generation from 75% to 50% over the next fifteen years or so, confirming the closure of France’s oldest nuclear plant at Fessenheim in Alsace, after a period of “consultation”, and announcing the early appointment of a mediator in the politically explosive issue of the building of a new airport on a greenfield site at Notre Dame des Landes in Western France.

In preparation for the parliamentary elections in June, Macron’s party La République en Marche (REM) is fielding its own candidates, many of them political novices, in 526 of the 577 constituencies represented in the Assemblée Nationale. In the remaining 51 constituencies, candidates from other parties, like Bruno le Maire or Manuel Valls will be unopposed by REM. Another clever touch clearly designed to further boost the chances of a presidential majority after the elections. As one could have expected, Les Républicans have been thrown into disarray, with the more radical elements in the party calling for the exclusion of the Prime Minister, Le Maire and Darmanin, and the more moderate seeming to want to give the new President the chance he seeks to forge a new-look majority. Les Républicains will find it hard to fight the election campaign with a united voice and are pretty much in the dark as to whether they will end up supporting Macron’s government or opposing it.

Macron himself has clearly been pulling most of the strings behind these developments. His strategy has become clearer as he has moved to stamp his authority not only on events but also on fellow travellers, like François Bayrou, whose party has been deprived of the numerous constituencies he had apparently been promised. Bayrou has been given a consolation prize by being appointed Minister of State, Minister of Justice, where probably the most than can be hoped for is that he will do no harm.

Pollsters are suggesting that a majority of French voters are prepared to give the new President the parliamentary majority he is seeking. Whether Macron himself will remain equally sure-footed in the months to come as he was on the red carpet in Berlin remains to be seen. But the first omens are definitely favourable.

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