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French Politics #1

Stefan de Vries
Stefan de Vries
Welcome to my new newsletter. Every weekend I’ll send you an update on French politics.
This week: Director Macron has found his leading role, as well as the 22 other actors in his new super production. Lights, camera, action!
Passez une bonne semaine !
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Is it the new President? Or Ben Hur?
Is it the new President? Or Ben Hur?
Emmanuel Macron took office as president of France last Sunday, taking over from François Hollande, the ‘normal President’. A pompous ceremony followed the solemn moment at the Elysée Palace. The next day, he appointed Edouard Philippe as his PM (Prime Minister). It didn’t come as a big surprise: Philippe’s name had been circulating for a while. With his choice, however, Macron dealt the Conservative Party a final blow. Until yesterday, he was the Mayor of Le Havre, the somewhat sinister port town in Normandy. He is the first bearded PM since Paul Ramadier in 1949, but despite this hairy detail, he is relatively unknown to the French public. As an MP he had the reputation of a procrastinator. He prefers to spend his time writing political thrillers. His mentor, former PM Alain Juppé, had wise advice for Philippe: “Don’t do it.”
Two days later, Wednesday, May 17th, the rest of the new cabinet followed. The new ministers were supposed to be appointed on Tuesday, but the High Authority for Transparency needed more time to check their tax records. The new government is a potpourri of figures on the left, right and centre. According to some, it gives a glimpse of how he plans to govern the country. To Northern Europeans and Germans, this may sound like your typical coalition, but the French have no real tradition of multi-partisan or even post-partisan politics. For that reason alone, Macron’s choices are interesting.
Team Macron
Team Macron
Three members of the new government, including the PM, were members of Les Républicains. They were almost immediately shown the door by the Conservative party.
Promises, promises
This new government has 18 ministers and four junior ministers (Hollande needed 36 Ministers), and, as promised, half of them are female. For the first time, three ministers are born in the 1980s. However, Macron has not kept all his election promises. During his campaign, he said that he would not appoint any of Hollande’s ministers but he has kept two of them: Le Drian and Girardin. 
It is more than likely that Macron will reshuffle his cabinet after the General Elections, on 11 and 18 June. Even those who do survive may have to leave during Macron’s presidency, due to potential scandals. This is French politics after all.
If you would like to follow all the actors in the French real-life version of House of Cards I have made a handy Twitter list with all of their accounts.
The most striking nomination in this cabinet is that of Nicolas Hulot. He became known as the presenter of Ushuaïa, a show about nature and environmental issues (broadcast between 1987 and 2014), and which eventually became a television station. For many years now, Hulot has been a respected and influential environmentalist. Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande in one way or another have all tried to lure him onto their team. Hulot refused their advances time after time because he doubted the ecological intentions of the presidents.
Macron was able to convince Hulot for several reasons. One of them is the fact that Hulot’s brand new Ministry no longer bears the name ‘Sustainable Development’, but is now called ‘Ecological and Solidarity-based Transition’. It may look like a detail, but it is a sign that Macron takes climate change seriously. Another, more vain reason, is that Hulot is now a Minister of State, an honorary title he only has to share with Collomb and Bayrou.
Hulot may clash with some of his new cabinet partners. He is opposed to the construction of a new airport near Nantes, one of the most explosive environmental issues in France in the last decade. The PM and the Minister of Foreign Affairs are fierce defenders of the project. To find a solution, Macron assigned a mediator earlier this week.
Hulot is also a fervent opponent of nuclear power, which is pretty rare for a Frenchman. As Premier Philippe used to work for Areva, one of the world’s largest constructors of nuclear energy plants, he wants to keep the 58 atomic reactors in the country open. Hulot, on the other hand, wants to ditch nuclear power entirely.
The topic will undoubtedly lead to severe confrontations between the two. Some media are already wondering who will be the first casualty, Hulot or Philippe. The Elysée immediately issued a statement saying that the potential tensions are overestimated. The shares of EDF, the state-owned company which mainly deals with nuclear power, rose after Philippe’s appointment, only to take a dive the following day when Hulot became a minister. As a sign of appeasement, the two free electrons made a joint visit to a biomethane plant yesterday.
Two years ago, I tried to find out why the French are so profoundly attached to nuclear energy. Watch the report here (in French).
Traditionally, the incoming French president makes his first foreign trip to Berlin. Macron is already the fourth French president the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has to deal with in her 12-year career. The first was Chirac, then Sarkozy, and then Hollande. This time, the new one was given the reception of a young god. “We never experienced anything like this with a foreign head of state,” said a German journalist, “Well, maybe with Obama.”
Wilkommen, Welcome, Bienvenue !
Wilkommen, Welcome, Bienvenue !
The visit turned out to be a perfect entrance onto the European political stage. At the joint press conference, ‘Mackerel’, as the new Franco-German couple is called, took a surprise stance. Changing the Lisbon Treaty is no longer taboo. Their meeting is the first step towards further European integration. Nevertheless, Germany and France have rather different views on the definition of such a closer cooperation. Europe is at a crucial moment in history. Will Macron be the perfect excuse for Germany to let the strict budget discipline go?
While Britain is drifting further away with Brexit looming from the Continent and should fear for its borders, Spain almost immediately declared that they would like to join any Franco-German initiative to rebuild Europe.
Macron’s next diplomatic test will come on Thursday in Brussels, where he will meet most of the other European leaders, as well as the American President Donald Trump. Will those kingpins succumb to Macron’s charm as well, or will they discover the chill behind his persuasive looks?
On Monday morning, French media were on high alert. The Elysée had promised that it would disclose the name of the new PM before noon. Early in the morning, the 24-hour news channels took their positions in front of Edouard Philippe’s apartment in Montmartre (the PM, who owns the place, has no idea how much his flat is worth). When Philippe exited the building, he stepped into a taxicab. His destination was unknown. Motor drivers with cameramen chased the cab, and the trip was broadcasted live. After a chase through the City, the taxi halted at the Assemblée, the French Lower House. A likely destination, since Edouard Philippe is still an MP. The soon to be PM entered the building but managed to get into another car and left almost immediately. A couple of minutes later he was on the other bank of the Seine, having lunch with Macron and negotiating the final details before being appointed PM. The journalists assumed he was having lunch with his colleague MPs…
Breaking: Edouard has left the building!
Breaking: Edouard has left the building!
Around 4PM, the Macron’s General Secretary finally made the announcement: Philippe was indeed the new prime minister. The statement took exactly thirteen seconds, which proved too short for the news channel LCI. While the anchors were chatting, they missed the moment suprême. They switched to the Elysée at the precise moment the Secretary returned inside the Palace. I do not like to make fun of my colleagues, but I have to admit that the clip of the gaffe is rather amusing.
The new PM was not only revealed to be a gifted escape artist, but also a fanatic boxer, a popular sport among politicians. He even came close to hand a straight right to Nicolas Sarkozy. The confrontation took place in 2002 during a party congress of the UMP, the Conservative Party. Philippe prevented Sarkozy from stealing the limelight from Alain Juppé. Sarkozy did not appreciate his interference and barged in on Philippe. He pushed his fist against Philippe’s chest and said: “You will never mess with me again”. The situation almost got gruesome, but suddenly Sarkozy calmed down. He probably realised that he stood no chance of winning: Philippe stands 1 meter 94 tall, whereas Sarkozy does not exceed 1 meter 68, one centimetre smaller than Napoléon.
Philippe (left) having a friendly conversation with Sarkozy. Or vice versa.
Philippe (left) having a friendly conversation with Sarkozy. Or vice versa.
We haven’t heard much lately of Europe’s most flamboyant Bunga Bunga fanatic, Sergio Berlusconi. This week, however, the eighty-year-old politician/businessman/ne'er-do-well reacted to Macron’s election in a manner that is characteristic of him. He called the new president a “handsome boy with a beautiful mum on his arm”, a very elegant reference to Macron’s wife, Brigitte.
Is this Action Hero the French media's newest nemesis?
Is this Action Hero the French media's newest nemesis?
Macron does not only like to direct; it looks like he also wants to write the screenplay himself. Hardly five days in office and he has already succeeded in antagonising almost all of the French media. For his visit to the French troops in Mali last Friday, he decided he would choose which journalists were allowed to accompany him. The journalists’ union SNJ was furious, and twenty editors wrote an angry letter to Macron. In an interview today, PM Philippe said that the government tries to control its communication to avoid any leaks.
Freedom of press and freedom of expression in France have been under pressure for a while now. The country comes only 39th in the annual World Press Freedom Index. However, the government is not the only thing to blame. The attitude of the Elysee is unacceptable, but perhaps the French press bears some responsibility for the complicated relationship between power and the media. The conflict could also be a trigger for French journalists to reinvent themselves. Or is this simply the first step of the new president’s ‘Trumpisation’?
Paris pulled out all the stops this week to convince the International Olympic Committee that the city is the best place for the 2024 Summer Games. Not that there was much competition left. The only other contender is Los Angeles. In an earlier stage, Rome, Hamburg, Budapest and Boston were also candidates, but in a fit of realism, these cities decided to turn away from the massive cost of hosting the Olympics.
On Tuesday, the IOC delegation got an almost royal reception by Macron, during one of his first official acts as president. We will have to wait another four months to know whether his charm offensive worked. During its session in Lima (Peru) in September, the IOC members will elect the host city. Macron has promised to be there. If the Games go to Paris, it will be the third time the French will organise the biggest sports event on earth, the first two being in 1900 and 1924.
Foul Play
Although it is very likely that Paris will win, there may be a last-minute hitch. The French public prosecutor has launched a bribery investigation in a complicated case. In 2009, Brazil bought four French submarines in a contract worth 6.69 billion euros. Part of the deal was a payment to a Brazilian lobbyist, who received 40 million euros under the code name ‘champagne’. This contract is just one part of the investigation. During the selection process for the 2016 Olympics, France actively lobbied in favour of Brazil. This took place at the same time as the signing of the lucrative defence contract. The investigators would now like to know whether there is a link between the two. There is already proof that a Brazilian businessman paid an influent IOC member’s son 1.5 million dollars, just three days before the election of Rio de Janeiro.
This year's poster of the Cannes Filmfest
This year's poster of the Cannes Filmfest
The 70th edition of the Cannes Film Festival was opened Wednesday evening by the Italian actress Monica Bellucci. The strict safety measures at the Croissette could not prevent any of Bellucci’s nipples showing during the ceremony.
All the headlines in this newsletter are obviously references to movies that once played at Cannes, except for one. But which one? Send the right answer (without Googling) to The winner gets a copy of Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, required reading in these interesting times. If you speak Dutch, I will send you a signed copy of my travel guide for insiders, ‘Parijs op Zak’.
Thank you for reading this newsletter. If you liked it, please share it with colleagues and/or friends who are also interested in France. I welcome your questions and comments on
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Merci !
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Stefan de Vries
Stefan de Vries @stefandevries

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