Games of Thrones

Emmanuel Macron has made his decision. The head (délégué général) of his La République en Marche (LRM) will be Christophe Castaner, currently government spokesman and minister for relations with parliament. Castaner, is a former Socialist deputy and mayor for Forcalquier, a rather pretty little town of roughly 5,000 inhabitants, down in the Luberon, in Provence. He was also the PS tête de liste in the 2015 regional elections in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur who withdrew his list from the second round of the ballot to allow the Republicains, led by Christian Estrosi, a free run at defeating the FN (under Marion Maréchal-Le Pen) in the run-off.

Castaner had only one serious rival for the post, Benjamin Griveaux, a junior minister at the finance ministry (based at Bercy), but the latter’s chances were undermined by the sense, both at the Elysée and Matignon, that the government needs to shore up its credentials on the left and respond to unease in the provinces. Griveaux may be a talented young man, but he is something of a carbon copy of Macron – an able and polished technocrat, but not what the French call ‘un homme du terrain’, with a career built on years of experience in local government. Given the disconnection between LRM and les élus locaux, the choice was obvious, even if it might not have been easy for Macron. While the rentrée sociale has been a flop for the left of the left and the unions, the sense that Macron’s tax reforms offer too much relief to the better off (though not if you read Le Figaro) means that he needs to strengthen his left.

The timing is telling. The post of delegate general was due to be formalised at a party congress on 18 November, but Macron’s decision became an open secret over the weekend of 23/24 October and so an announcement had to be made. Of course, the fact that it is Macron, not the party, choosing its chef de file has provoked comment and ridicule in the press and among Macron’s opponents, but it’s hardly surprising.

By coincidence, over that weekend I was re-reading Pierre Viansson-Ponté’s La République gaullienne, the classic account of French politics during the de Gaulle years, written by one of Le Monde’s leading political correspondents. Viansson-Ponté underlines the unease that de Gaulle felt with the rise of the Gaullist party, the Union pour la Nouvelle République (UNR) in 1958, like LRM not so much a party as a movement behind one man. Thrown together almost overnight by Jacques Soustelle, the minister of information, the UNR won a large number of seats in the National Assembly – 212 of the 552 on offer. Not enough to govern alone, but a useful foundation.

De Gaulle was, however, at pains to ensure, post-election, that the UNR statutes should NOT include the figure of a president, nor that Soustelle should become it leader. The General was not about to allow the UNR to became the base for a rival and Soustelle, who as the architect of the UNR’s success might have hoped to be named prime minister or at least be appointed to one of the ministères régaliens, had to be content with the post of minister-delegate to the PM, Michel Debré. While it looked good on paper, Soustelle’s appointment followed the rule of ‘keeping your friends close and your enemies closer’. Neither de Gaulle nor Debré were going to let Soustelle loose on a ministry of his own. And when the election of the UNR general secretary came up, they ensured that it was the loyalist Roger 'safe hands' Frey who was appointed, not Soustelle.

What does this have to do with Macron and Castaner? Everything

As Solenn de Royer and Bastien Bonnefous underline here, Macron and Castaner face a very real problem of turning the macroniste tidal wave into a meaningful and solid political force. For all the talk about being a fluid structure of a new type, power comes through the ballot box. Whatismore, there are already signs that the much-vaunted 300,000-plus membership is ebbing away. Macron needs someone to bring the party under control and give it direction without offering a challenge to him. It also needs someone able to manage the increasing demands of the the parties parlementaires in relation to the government and the grassroots.

Reconciling these tensions will keep Castaner busy enough and it is not yet clear whether he will resign his government post. The early indicators are that he does not want to, but that seems to go against the Macron mantra of modernisation and opposition to the accumulation of offices.

Meanwhile, over at Les Républicains, the list of candidates for the party presidency has been finalised. To qualify for the election (to be held on the 10 and 17 December), candidates had to be endorsed by 1% of the party membership across 15 different departmental federations, together with 5% of the party’s parlementaires.  In practical terms this mean 2347 ordinary members and 13 parlementaires. (The party used quite a broad census point for both categories, stretching from the end of 2016 to June 2017.) At one point there appeared to be four names in the hat, but once the organising committee scrutinised the lists of sponsors, this was reduced to three: Maël de Calan, Florence Portelli, and Laurent Wauquiez. The fourth, Daniel Fasquelle, had his candidature rejected for lack of support from ordinary members.

Wauquiez is, by some distance, the favourite and you can get quite good odds on the election not actually going to a second round. Already, he has become omnipresent in the media and holding public meetings across the country. President of the Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne region, he is the only well-known name among the three in an election that the other contenders have opted out of. François Baroin, touted as a future PM under a Fillon presidency and who led the party through the general elections needs time to recover his reputation and is doing that as chair of the Association des Maires de France (he is mayor of Troyes).

Two other regional presidents, Valérie Pécresse (Ile-de-France) and Xavier Bertrand (Hauts-de-France) announced back in the summer that they would not stand, for very similar reasons. Both fear the impact that a ‘guerre des chefs’ would have on the party. That is what happened in 2012, after Nicolas Sarkozy’s defeat by François Hollande, when Fillon and Jean-François Copé knocked huge chunks out of one another. And it is arguably what happened last autumn too, in the right-wing primary, which left Les Républicains with a single candidate but a horribly divided party.

These divisions are still being played out. Wauquiez is a sarkozyste who seems to want to take the party back to the right, to win back the electorate that carried Sarkozy to power in 2007, but which he lost to Marine Le Pen in 2012. There are, however, deep misgivings within about what is seen as a droitisation and a march towards the une droite identitaire. Pécresse herself has warned of the dangers behind such a position and of any form of porosité between LR and the Front National. For her part, Le Pen sees Wauquiez as a poor copy of Sarkozy.

His opponents, Calan and Portelli, do not seem to stand very much chance. Calan represents the juppéiste wing of the party. If he forces a run-off he will have done well and those within LR closer to the centre-right will take heart. If Pécresse and Bertrand have the presidential ambitions for 2022 that some commentators have attributed to them, then Wauquiez not steamrollering to victory will suit them very well.

Portelli is, in some ways, the odd candidate of the three. As one of the former spokespeople for Fillon during his campaign, one might think that she represents his Catholic and conservative vision for the future, but it isn’t so straightforward. Her goal is to get into the second round and then lead an ‘anyone but Wauquiez’ charge. That’s not, however, a very sound basis on which to refonder the party.

In the meantime, Les Républicains have been more vexed with the matter of what to do with their macroncompatibles Constructifs. At a meeting of the party executive last week, 37 of the 47 members present voted to expel PM Edouard Philippe and other ministers from the party. Unfortunately, however, the number present was someway short of the required quorum of 63 and some heavyweights in the party (well, Christian Estrosi) have argued that there is space for constructive opposition to Macron.

Marine Le Pen will have been looking on at LR’s continuing problems, both within and with the government, with some relief. And while she is the only candidate for her succession, due for re-election next spring, the fallout from the presidential election still continues. Back in early October, Florian Philippot, the architect of the dédiabolisation (detoxification) of the party and of its leftward shift towards state-led ‘intelligent’ protectionism, left the party before he was expelled. Within the FN, Philippot has had to carry the can for Le Pen’s poor performance at the polls. It was a scenario oddly reminiscent of Le Pen père’s performance in 2007. Then, the view was that his campaign was poorly conceived and badly organised by his campaign manager… his daughter Marine. She was saved by the fact that in the subsequent general election, she was the only FN candidate to get through to the second ballot.

Superficially, Philippot’s ‘crime’ was setting up his own group - Les Patriotes - within the FN. Now, the FN does not outlaw courants by any means. In fact, in some ways the FN looks more like a nébuleuse of far right groups, clubs and think-tanks. Still, Marine Le Pen ruled that Philippot would have to choose between Les Patriotes and his position within the FN. So he did just that. The bottom line is still that the FN did poorly because its candidate is a bit rubbish. France might have the stupidest right in the world, but it also has the thickest far-right in thrall to its founder's wretched family.

Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum, and the man hoping to fill the space left by Philippot’s departure is Nicolas Bay, Le Pen’s spokesman throughout the presidential campaign.  There is some irony to Bay’s position. Still only 39, he has been involved in politics long enough, however, to have been involved in a major schism on the far right back in 1999. Then, Bruno Mégret challenged the leadership of Jean-Marie Le Pen and was rewarded with expulsion from the party. Mégret set up his own Mouvement National Républicain (MNR) and Bay went with him. The MNR was not a success and when Mégret gave up the leadership in 2008, Bay drifted back into the orbit of the FN. Closer to the socially conservative, economically liberal and identitaire politics of Marion Maréchal Le Pen, Bay was delighted with the exclusion of Philippot.

Bay's position is not wholly secure, however. Le Pen hires 'em and fires 'em with great regularity, and already a new figure may be beginning to assert his presence within the cheffe's charmed circle. His name is Sébastien Chenu, one of the handful of FN deputies elected in June and a refugee from the old UMP. Indeed, not just any refugee, but a former advisor to Christine Lagarde when she was at Bercy. One to watch in the build up to the party's congrès de refondation, perhaps.

At the other end of the political spectrum. Things have not been going well for the left. Within the PS, the reappearance of François Hollande after a period of post-presidential silence has set off rumours that he is behind a putative bid to have Bernard Cazeneuve installed as the party’s general secretary. This has, understandably, been the cause of much gnashing of teeth among the party quadras (forty-somethings) who hoped they had seen not just the last of Hollande, but who also hoped the rout of 2017 had cleared out the old guard. Whether they will have much of a party left to lead, though, remains a moot point, as membership appears to have gone into freefall.

The demise of the PS was supposed to work in favour of Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his ‘left of the left’ La France Insoumise (LFI) and it may yet turn out to be the net beneficiary. But the rentrée sociale that Mélenchon was hoping for did not materialise. Yes there were strikes and at one point a blockade on oil refineries, but the widespread rejection of Macron’s reforms to the labour law did not happen. Meanwhile, LFI deputies have found their own behaviour put under the sort of spotlight they have been prone to shining on others, such as living in social housing while drawing down a parliamentary salary. No-one is suggesting they have done anything illegal, but if you shout loudly, don’t be surprised when people look at you. As a diversionary tactic, arguing that there is no place for the European flag in the French parliament because it is a religious symbol (the blue represents the Virgin Mary and the twelve stars the Apostles, apparently) is the sort of nonsense that even the late Ian Paisley might have hesitated over.

Macron may not be doing well in the approval ratings, but the others aren’t looking very clever right now either.