So, on the back of Emmanuel Macron’s address to congress at Versailles on Monday, yesterday (Tuesday 4 July) saw his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, head to the hémicycle of the Palais Bourbon to outline his government’s programme and submit himself to a vote of confidence. (On a point of detail, the programme is read, at the same time, to the Senate, by whichever minister is second in order of protocol. As it happens, this was Gérard Collomb, the interior minister and former senator for the Rhône department. There is no automatic mechanism by which the Senate gets to express confidence or not. That can only be asked for by the government and it didn’t.)
Where Macron on Monday tackled the curves and lines of the grand designs – institutional reform, lifting the state of emergency etc. – of his quinquennat, it was left to Philippe to take on ‘les sujets qui fâchent’ (the tricky bits) as Le Figaro put it. And to much harrumping, while Philippe was performing to the National Assembly, Macron was off being all presidential, visiting one of France’s nuclear submarines near Brest (and getting hoisted up into a helicopter in a Boris Johnson stylee).
Philippe’s programme was not particularly exciting and following Macron it was all a bit 'after the Lord Mayor’s show’. For English readers, there is a perfectly good synopsis by The Guardian’s Paris correspondent Angélique Chrisafis here and a French one here in Le Monde. And while better reimbursement of glasses, hearing aids and dental care might not seem radical, I know far too many French people on low incomes/pensions for whom the exorbitant costs of these things mean they do not get the care or equipment they really need. (I have never understood how the costs of spectacles in France can be so high.)
Plantu had already anticipated a rather downbeat affair, with Tuesday morning’s cartoon, showing Philippe as Captain Haddock, complaining that the admiral had stolen his tonnerre de Brest. But that’s the point. Being PM is the worst job in France. When everything goes well, the President takes the credit. When it goes badly, the PM takes the blame.
Or at least that used to be the way of things, until Sarkozy and Hollande flipped that around. Another of the effects of presidentialization of the Fifth-and-a-Half Republic. Arguably, what Macron is trying to do with his performance of presidentialism is to put the PM back in the line of fire. The valse hsitation between the two men will be one of the key features of at least the next couple of years in French politics.
Philippe got his majority with ease, with 370 votes for, 67 against and a record-busting 129 abstentions, largely from the right-wing Les Républicains (LR) but also among the centre-right ‘Constructifs’. Some members of the LR group voted for and others against the government. In due course, we may well see the divisions within the LR over the vote of confidence become a guideline to the way the party splinters and re-forms over the next few weeks and months. Back in the 19th century, when parties and parliamentary groups were nebulous and deputies could belong to more than one, the only way the Dictionnaire des parlementaires could determine someone’s politics was how they had voted over this or that key law.
Laurent de Boissieu has tweeted this camembert to illustrate the balance in parliament after the vote of confidence. It gives a good indication of just how comfortable Philippe’s position is.
The term the ‘Marais’, here used to indicate the abstentions, is a reference to the moderate politicians of the ‘plain’ or the ‘marsh’ of the Revolutionary period. It has nothing to do with the IVth arrondissement of Paris.
As expected, the radical left, comprising La France Insoumise, the Communists (though not their overseas allies, who all abstained), and some of the Nouvelle Gauche expressed no confidence, along with the FN. Jean-Luc Mélenchon has already promised more tie-less shoutiness in the Place de la République. But Marine Le Pen is struggling to find her metaphorical feet and her real voice in the Palais Bourbon. Her lack of experience of parliamentary practice and how to get speaking time for her and her fellow FN deputies is doing her few favours.
Although there are too few FN deputies and allies to form their own group (for now at least), as part of the non-inscrits group they do have rights and representation. But, of course, it may well suit her not to use these and to decry the ‘system’ for denying her, as the representative of 11 million voters (7 May) a voice. I can see sitting in the National Assembly as a double-edged sword for her. I was never convinced she wanted to win the regional election in the Haut-de-France in December 2015 and I’m not sure she really wanted this either.
Today, 5 July 2017, has been marked by a national homage to Simone Veil, who died on 30 June. Many of you will have read obituaries to her in the French and Anglophone press and I have no intention of repeating that material here. Although she has not been directly involved in politics for some while, her death, for me, marks a very real change in the political landscape that I have worked with as an academic over the last 30 years, a change at least as profound as that signalled by the victory of En Marche!
The image at the top of this entry is a detail of the sword Veil wore as a member of the Académie Française. It, too, is double-edged, but that’s as far as I can push the metaphor. You will notice the inscription on the hilt – Birkenau and the number tattooed on Veil’s arm as a Jewish deportee.
As the obituary writer in Le Monde underlined, ‘malgré elle’, in spite of herself, Veil found herself at the heart of three of the great 'tourments' of the twentieth century: the Holocaust; women’s rights; the reconstruction of Europe. In the wake of her death, various petitions were raised calling for her to be laid to rest in the Panthéon, mausoleum of the great and a good of the patrie. What a stunning reversal of the insults offered to her when, as minister of health, under the Giscard-Chirac government in 1974, she guided the legalisation of abortion through the Palais Bourbon, more or less single-handedly.
Initially, her family were against her panthéonisation, arguing that she would never have wished to be buried apart from her late husband, who died in 2013. But at the ceremony at Les Invalides, before all the great and good of France and Navarre, President Macron announced that Simone and Antoine Veil will enter the Panthéon together.
There is a precedent for this. In 1907, Marcellin Berthelot, one of the founding figures of the Third Republic, a life-senator and internationally acclaimed chemist died, of grief it is said, within a few hours of his wife, Sophie. They had promised to be buried together and so it was, that when the Republic decided to honour him with burial in the Panthéon, it was with her by his side. Thus Sophie Berthelot became the first woman buried in the Panthéon.
What a week – Versailles-Le Palais Bourbon-Les Invalides-Le Panthéon.
I’ll leave the last word to Plantu, who like the great Jacques Faizant before him, usually gets his obituary drawings spot on.