After the municipal elections in June, Emmanuel Macron’s government reshuffle has heralded the appearance of a number of “Sarkozyistes” : a Prime Minister (Jean Castex) who was Deputy Secretary General to Nicolas Sarkozy, a Home Secretary (Gérard Darmanin) who refers to the former President as a mentor, a Culture Minister (Franck Riester) who served as Sarkozy’s campaign manager, to name a few. In addition to these faces from the right, Macron’s new government are singing tunes not dissimilar from those found in the hymn book of Marine Le Pen’s ‘Rassemblement National’ as well as the right-wing fringes of the conservative ‘Les Républicains’. What does this new-found nexus of political discourse mean for France and why now, approximately 600 days from the next general election, is Macron making this move?
A change in political needs
Back in 2017, when Emmanuel Macron was campaigning at the head of his self-proclaimed centrist party La République En Marche!, the political atmosphere was altogether very different to the one that greets the French President today. During the electoral campaign, the centre-left party Le Parti Socialiste was in disarray. Benoît Hamon trailed in the polls as his pro-welfare, pro-immigration policies failed to chime with a French electorate alarmed by a series of terrorist attacks and weary after five years of PS leader François Hollande at the realm. The vacuum that was then growing on the left hand-side of the political stage needed filling. Then came ‘PenelopeGate’: the revelation that François Fillon, presidential candidate and leader of the Les Républicains party, had fabricated jobs on behalf of his wife (Penelope Fillon). Suddenly both the major centre-left and centre-right parties looked politically weaker than they had been for years – but with the centre-left Parti Socialiste polling in the single digits, to many progressive voters it looked likely that they were heading for a final round between Republican François Fillon and nationalist Marine Le Pen. Unless they voted for that year’s wildcard: Macron and his centrist La République En Marche!.
Macron and his campaign team would have spotted the need that was presenting itself to appeal to the left. So they opened the arms of the party and emphasised their commitment to a diverse politics that they claimed could coexist with Macron’s commitment to fiscal restraint. His first cabinet, split 50-50 between men and women, included four former members of the centre-left Parti Socialiste as well as two members of centre-left Parti Radical de la Gauche (Annick Girardin, Oversees Minister and Jacques Mézard, Agriculture and Food Minister). True to his commitment to fiscal conservatism, Macron placed economic policy in the hands of Republican, Bruno Le Maire. The judicial system was also in the hands of the centre-right, with other key ministries headed by centrist politicians from his own LREM! party.
There was never any doubt that Macron was not himself a leftist (despite his previous membership of the Parti Socialiste). His time as Hollande’s Minister for the Economy and Industry saw him push through business-friendly reforms and his presidential programme was no different. Nevertheless his new party insisted it was a broad church and could point to its six left-wing ministers as evidence of their commitment to political diversity.
Fast forward to 2020 and Macron’s third government has a somewhat different flavour. Six left-wing ministers have been whittled down to two – Florence Parly and PS big wig Jean-Yves Le Drian. Even with the Minister of Justice Eric Dupond-Moretti, a centre-left independent, the new cabinet is at best a run-down version of a once credible facade of inclusive politics. Its increased number of centrist and centre-right ministers should not be seen as a shift to the right but rather a dropping of Macron’s centre-left pretences. The need to hoover up a disillusioned progressive vote has slowly disappeared since the 2017 elections. The success of the Greens and the Parti Socialiste during the municipal elections this June hinted at a reformed and reignited centre-left and left wing, with a stronger emphasis on ecological policies (a phenomenon unfolding across other countries in Europe).
Instead, it was LREM! and its coalitions with the centre-right Les Républicains that failed to gather momentum across the country. Despite isolated victories in Le Havre, Amiens and Toulouse, Macron’s party saw little in the way of success. Though the turn-out of 41.6% makes the municipal elections less reliable as a point of reference for political analysis, the centre-right ultimately came out looking just as weak if not weaker than it appeared in the 2017 legislative elections. As Macron eyes his 2022 presidential bid, it would take a politician of poor awareness to realise that the vacuum in today’s French politics is no longer in the centre-left but in the space where once Nicolas Sarkozy’s party had full control.
‘Femonationalism’ and the Darmanin issue
Marlène Schiappa is no longer the Secretary of State for Gender Equality and yet it has been her remarks on women’s issues that have added salt to an already wounded French feminist movement. The appointment of Gérard Darmanin as Home Secretary while he faces a reopening of a rape case against his name has incensed feminists in France and beyond. One of the largest feminist organisations in the country, Nous Toutes, helped organise mass protests against Darmanin’s appointment, which arguably places him in a conflict of interest given the Home Secretary’s guardianship of the same authorities who will ultimately investigate his case. When Macron defended Darmanin’s claim to innocence until proven guilty on France during his 14th July interview, he appeared to reject any notion of a conflict of interest or indeed insensitivity towards sexual assault survivors. This was a far cry from the Macron of 2017, pledging a 50-50 cabinet.
If Darmanin’s appointment was not enough to sour government relations with feminist groups, the now Minister Delegate for Citizenship, Marlène Schiappa, has since taken to the radio waves and newspapers to laud a programme she is aiming to put into place to protect women – but that has been criticised for its notable nationalist elements. According to Schiappa, French women need protecting from foreign aggressors. Immigrants who commit acts of violence or sexual violence against French women could be deported from the country, a move which feminists including the Nous Toutes organisation have branded ‘fémonationaliste‘. Indeed, while Schiappa commits to the expulsion of foreign aggressors towards women, opponents to women’s rights such as Catholic organisations have seemingly escaped the government’s radar.
A growing nationalist rhetoric to preempt Le Pen’s pre-election rise?
It is interesting that Macron’s government should choose to place so much focus on the ‘foreign’ threat to the famous French ethos: la laicité. Not only is Schiappa linking policies on women’s issues to Islamist extremism and ‘separatists‘ (we can assume she is not referring to the pro-independence movement in Corsica) but Macron’s new Prime Minister, Jean Castex, also seems to be throwing his hat into the nationalist ring.
Why now? Why after nearly four years in the Elysée is Macron’s government so vocally concerned with the state of the secular nation? It is important to remember that even in the divisive election of 2017 that came just two years after the devastating terror attacks of 2015, a crackdown on so-called ‘separatists’ did not feature in Macron’s major policy pledges.
Of course, that was Macron’s first time running for President. He was running against a National Front opponent and needed to be the antithesis of everything she stood for in order to clinch the leftist vote. What about now, when the leftist vote seems to be coalescing around its familiar parties and the right side of the political spectrum is without a big leader? And then there’s that other factor to consider, a pesky thorn in Macron’s side: Marine Le Pen.
As recently as this summer, a nationwide poll gave Marine Le Pen victory in a hypothetical first round of a presidential race: 28% over Macron’s 26%. In 2017 Macron beat Le Pen by nearly 3% in the first round, before sweeping two thirds of the vote in the final round to become President. It is not beyond reason that Macron’s government is already preparing for 2022. If Macron can no longer rely on a divided left vote like he could in 2017, if Le Pen is still capable of garnering a worrying portion of votes, Macron’s ‘all-aboard’ bus will need to take a right turn to fill in the vacuum created by an ailing centre-right. Indeed, it has already turned.