November 30, 2022

Letter From Paris: From Macron v1 to Macron v2: France Negotiates Turbulent Times 

Editor’s Note: We are delighted to welcome back Nicole Prévost Logan. Today she offers a detailed analysis of happenings in the French political landscape, saying, “A lot has happened in France in the past two months and I felt it important to write about what is not making the headlines.”

Nicole Prévost Logan

Surreal political developments are taking taken place in France. 

Barely had President Emmanuel Macron been reelected on April 24 with 58.5 percent of the votes on the second round of the majority ballot that a vote of no confidence against the newly appointed prime minister Elizabeth Borne was already announced as well as a possible dissolution of the Assemblée Nationale (National Assembly).

Three ministers which had been appointed in the new Cabinet just six weeks earlier had to step down losing their seats in the legislative elections.  Two strong supporters of Macron – Richard Ferrand, President of the National Assembly and Christophe Castaner, the former president of the majority party – had to resign.

What had seemed like a victory for Emmanuel Macron, when he was reelected for a second five-year mandate turned into a cold shower brought on by the outcome of the Legislative elections.  The far left party was quick to describe it as a déroute (total collapse.) 

French President Emmanuel Macron.

Presidential elections had been held on April 10 and 24. The legislative elections on June 12 and 19 changed the aspect of the National Assembly, (incidentally, note the remarkable number of 577 ‘deputés‘ in France as compared to only 435 in the House of Representatives). The number of seats of Macrons’ party, La République en Marche or LREM, was  reduced from 346 to  to 246. It has now only a “relative majority” and is short 44 seats to reach the absolute majority of 289. 

For five years the Presidential party was in control, but now it has to share its power with the opposition. Making compromises is not in the DNA of French politics. This is an unprecedented situation when the government needs to supplement its relative majority.  Quite a difference from a country like Germany where Olaf Shultz was able to strike an alliance with four parties. 

The new Assemblée Nationale is now basically made up of three competing blocks:  LREM, NUPES (New Union Political Economic and Social)  and the Rassemblement National or RN. 

Jean Luc Mélanchon, head of the far left parti La France Insoumise or LFI,  led an active campaign  between April and June to create an anti Macron coalition.

It bore fruit.

He was able to pull together the forces of the Socialists, the Europe Ecologie les Verts or EELV, the Communist Party and his own radical LFI together under the name of NUPES for a total of 131 deputés. It is not a party but a fragile coalition, which could fall apart at any time. Its main objective is to block Macron’s action . 

Marine LePen. 1922 photo published under Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0.

The most striking change in the parliament was the spectacular surge of the RN, from seven seats in the previous Assembly to 89 today. Even the RN leader Marine Le Pen was stunned. She had expected 60 seats at most.

After her disastrous performance in the debate against Macron in the 2017 presidential elections, Le Pen had kept a low profile in the recent electoral campaigns.

And it paid off.

She has also been helped by the collapse of the far right camp of Erik Zemmour, who was left with only 7 percent of the vote in the Presidential elections. 

In the past Le Pens’ electoral base was limited to small areas in the north of France and in the south east. Now she has supporters in the entire country. The RN is progressively changing from being a pariah to becoming “acceptable,” … but one should always be cautious with Le Pen and not overlook the fact that she was in Moscow, cozying up to Putin and seeking his help in obtaining a loan. 

When she suggested her aim was to emulate the politics of Viktor Orban as a model, it is a clear red flag that, under a liberal veneer, she is still a true populist. 

On July 4, Macron introduced his definitive and reshuffled cabinet. Overall it included a number of unknown faces, with several technocrats, specialized in their field. 

For example Braun, a doctor-ER specialist was nominated to tackle the huge problem of health, public hospitals, access to medical treatment which has disappeared in many regions away from the urban centers.

Another specialist is Olivier Klein, mayor of Clichy-sous-Bois, a popular neighborhood, former socialist, to handle housing and urban issues.

Pap Ndiaye is the new Education minister. A historian, born in France, of African descent, he is highly educated and a graduate of the University of Virginia. He is the symbol of diversity and the egalité des chances (equal opportunities).  He is being criticized by some for entering his children in the elite- and expensive-Ecole Alsacienne private school on the Left Bank (full transparency — four of my grand children attended that school.) 

The Borne 2 Cabinet has a total of 42 members, including 16 ministers, 15 ministres delegués and 10 secretaires d’Etat.  Three heavyweight ministers retained their positions:  Bruno Lemaire, with an expanded Ministry of Economy and Finances,  Gerald Darmanin, Minister of the Interior and Eric Dupond -Moretti, as minister of Justice.  Moretti is a heavy set, often regarded as a bully, but a brilliant, though controversial, criminal defense lawyer.

The “feminization” process is showing mixed progress : there are only five women ministers versus 11 men. Nine of the 10 of the Secretaires d’Etat (Secretaries of State) are women. Therefore it still looks like that women occupy lower positions than men.

However, one should point out that some women are now holding key posts:  Elizabeth Borne as Prime Minister, Yaël Braun-Pivet as President of the National Assembly,  Aurore Bergé, as president of the LREM.

Foreign Affairs and European Affairs are now the domain of Catherine Colonna, a career diploma and a former ambassador to the UK . This was a surprising move because the post had been held for many years by Jean-Yves Le Drian, an old-timer, who had served in the government since the Francois Holland government. 

The ongoing problems with sexual harassment had some impact with the appointment of ministers. Heavily-handicapped Damien Abad, minister of Solidarity, was denounced by four women for rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault and had to resign probably under the influence of the new Prime Minister. Sexual scandals could not be tolerated any longer, said Borne, and the principle of “exemplarity” would be applied.

This raised the question whether Eric Cockerel , LFI, the newly appointed head to the key post of the Assembly Finances Committee, might be brought under investigation on the accusation by a former Gilet Jaune (yellow jacket) militant, for improper sexual behavior. A complaint by a woman for improper sexual behavior is still outstanding. The far left NUPE so far has paid not attention to that complaint. Incidentally, Cockerel ‘s unlikely profession is as an organizer of the famous Vendée Globe, the only round-the-world solo sailing race. 

But the prime minister may not tolerate that double standard for long. 

The #Metoo movement is still going strong here.

Macron was criticized (as usual) for being too slow in creating his Cabinet, for dragging his feet. Public opinion resented the fact that the French president seemed to be always addressing the population between two doors, on his way abroad, or from the tarmac of an airport. 

It is true that Macron has been busy with international affairs particularly during the six months as president of the Council of the EU From January to June 2022 .  

The 27 EU members take turns leading this body on a rotating basis every six months. (Note: the Council of the EU is not to be confused with the European Council where EU leaders meet quarterly to discuss broad policy matters. At the writing of this article the Czech Republic is heading the Council of the EU.

On July 2, a superb documentary — produced by France 2, one of the main French public TV channels — was released. It is titled “Macron,  l’Europe et la Guerre.”

The film showed how intense the French president ‘s involvement has been in the crisis created by the war in Ukraine.   Conversations with Putin were listened to, recorded and analyzed at the Elysées Palace and the Quai d’Orsay round the clock. 

The documentary does not consist of staged interviews but rather gives the viewer the opportunity to share the spontaneous reactions of the government’s inner circle. This is diplomacy in action. 

Using the familiar “tu” of the French language, one witnesses a sometime intimate exchange with Putin, who at one point tells Macron he has to leave to go to an ice hockey match. 

Macron is in Moscow on Feb. 7. the situation was more incendiary than in 2008 or 2014. 

On Feb. 8, Macron is in Kiev and spends three hours with Zelensky in the Maryinsky Palace. 

Six days before the onset of the Russian invasion, Putin declared, “The war games have come to an end.”T

Three days before Feb.  24, Putin announces the independence of Donetsk and Lujhansk. 

On Feb. 22, Macron is instrumental in setting European sanctions against Russia. Macron states, “We are here to help Ukraine not to topple the Russian government.

On June 23, France strongly supports giving Ukraine the official status of candidate to membership in the EU. An incredible nine-hour train ride through a country at war, brings Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Sholz and Mario Dragui to Kiev.

The film shows that, no matter how futile it may have appeared, it was an extraordinary effort on the part of the French president to maintain the dialogue open with a Russian leader unwavering in his objective of total destruction of a country.  

Is France ungovernable ?  

Will politics be a wrestling match between the Executive and the Legislative Chambers from now on?

Macron will have to be a real “artist” if he wants to be able to  make compromises with an unbending opposition. The problem is that the president, having been elected by universal suffrage, is still perceived as acting as “Jupiter”.

At the beginning of his second mandate he excluded both the extreme partiers RN and NUPEs from a possible coalition.  Les Republicains, (center right) or LR refused to act as the” spare tire” of the government.  The NUPEs threatened to introduce  a vote of no confidence even before the government unveiled its program.  In other words, if the system is to function as a parliamentary democracy, the lack of an absolute majority will force both sides to abandon the posturing game.

The power center of gravity has moved: public opinion is now the arbiter.  

What tools does the government has to govern without the support of the Assembly ? In fact it has more power than appears at first sight :The main tool is the article 49-3, equivalent of Executive Orders in the US.

In 1988, under Francois Mitterand, the Prime Minister Michel Rocard used it 28 times during the first three years,  then  39 times during the following five years under the second mandate. 

Today the rules have changed: only one 49-3 is allowed  during a parliament’s session.

Two other tools exist: it is not easy to dissolve the Assembly since 2/3 , or 289 of the votes are needed.  Besides, Article 47 stipulates that in the event  the budget is not voted upon within 70 days , the government may act by Executive Order.

The government faces a daunting task.

The priority is to manage the pouvoir d’achat  or purchasing power, in order to cope with the rising cost of living including energy and food essentials makes it is urgent to help the poorest households, which cannot make ends meet. 

A Green deputy violently attacked Macron, saying that he does not understand anything about environment. He even wants to dig into the deepest depth of the ocean, she said. But Macron understands the urgency of the environment problems very well, also but he has to set priorities.

Whenever people get hungry the situation becomes explosive. Threatening famine was the main cause of the “Arab Spring” in the early 2010s. 

Bruno Lemaire comments about the dire economic situation of France. Inflation is now 5.8%, a little less than in other European countries because France has dis-industrialized and increased its services sector. The interest on the public debt used to be negative, but now it is 2% and growing. This interest will this year will be 55 billion Euros, an increase of 45% or 66% in two years. 

The debt has reached 120% of the GDP.

The BCE  (Central Bank of Europe) is drying up its buying of sovereign debts of the EU member states. This is the end of quoiqu’il en coûte (no matter the cost ), which became necessary with COVID. 

The RN proposes to lower the TVA (value added tax)  from 20% to 5% , to raise the minimum wage to 1,500 euros per month  These proposals are totally unrealistic and would drive France’s economy into the wall very quickly.

While Russia has made 60 billion Euros selling its gas and oil, it cost Europe a great deal to declare embargo on energy from Russia since it has to buy it – at a higher cost from other countries. 

At the G7 meeting in Bavaria, in late June, Macron condemned the profiteurs de Guerre (war profiteers) who make millions. He pointed out Total, which increased its profits by 48% this year, or CMA CGM, the third largest container shipping company (headquarters in Marseille and in Norfolk Virginia ) made 56 billion Euros in profits in 2021. 

EDF, the electricity and gas supply giant and the big companies of the CAC 40 also made huge profits. 

In the UK, the government imposed a 25% windfall tax on oil and gas producers to support the poorest households. 

Will France do the same?

It is in this climate of mounting economic and social problems that Elizabeth Borne, the new Prime Minister, made her general policy speech at the Assemblée Nationale on July 6. It was an impressive performance and was received with flying colors by most. Not phased by a loud and sometime rowdy Chamber, she was firm and showed her authority.  Without discussing specifics of the government’s program, she set the tone and method of her future actions.  

She had already held conversations with all political groups and intends to continue in the Fall. She made it clear that substantive decisions will be made in a consensual manner, that the government will show a back bone but at the same time reach out for compromises. 

What a contrast with what happened to Edith Cresson in 1991-1992 – the only other woman Prime Minister in France!   For 11 months, she was the non-stop target of sexism in the Assembly, the street and the media.The Guignols puppet show satirizing French politics made fun of her day after day. 

Borne, a civil engineer by profession, is the product of the elite school Polytechnique,  has held several ministerial posts, and showed her talent of tough negotiator during the months of talks with the powerful Cheminots or railroad workers of the SNCF  (Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer Français). She was able to combine her no-nonsense attitude with a personal tone, saying, “I owe a lot to the Republic, she said, since I am a pupille de la Nation (a ward of the State). Her father, a Polish Jew and a survivor from Auschwitz, committed suicide when she was 11.    

Borne knows her stuff. She touched on important topics: security, police, agriculture, vulnerable women — particularly if single parents,  in need of health care, etc.  Her remark about the French would have to work “a bit more” provoked loud protests by a good chunk of the deputés.

Disorder is not an option, she said. 

She made an important announcement: the government intends to nationalize EDF, which manages the nuclear plants and is heavily in debt. Currently the State owns 85% of the shares. One percent is held by the staff and 14% by individuals and institutions.  

This will give more room to the government to maneuver. The objective of the Macron government is a reduction in nuclear power by 50% by 2035 and a carbon-free country by 2050.  

In 1960, under General de Gaulle, France became the fourth most important nuclear power in the world. France’s nuclear power underwent a surge during the 1973 OPEC oil crisis. 

Today there are 56 plants in France with an average age of 37 years. Half the plants are closed due to routine maintenance or defects. By 2020 France had 70% of the power plants in Europe, Slovakia had 53%, Ukraine 51% and Hungary 48%.

There have been problems with the construction of the fourth generation EPR (water-pressurized plant) of Flamanville.  Macron wants France is to become a leader in low-carbon-energy using small modular reactors and green hydrogen. 

The largest and most advanced experimental project on nuclear fusion or ITER is under construction in the south east of France managed by a collaboration of 35 European countries.

The transition between the first and the second mandate of Macron will not be easy . “Do not expect things to go smoothly,” commented Borne.    

One must trust the ability of Macron to adjust. Between a president, who is on a permanent crusade to promote a stronger EU and a pragmatic prime minister to work on the home front, one is entitled to be optimistic. 

Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Nicole Prévost Logan.

Nicole Prévost Logan

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She writes an occasional column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also covers a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.