Losing two parents looks like carelessness. Losing two most senior Ministers looks like … crisis
The President’s ‘catastrophic and interminable Rentrée’ just goes on week after week and he’s ‘weaker than ever’ (Le Monde).
‘Nothing that has happened over the past 48 hours is in any way a political crisis … the Government’s at work’. Can’t be more straightforward than that. With those few calming words, President Macron addressed his Ministers. Excessively excited scribblers were hushed. Some journalists had foolishly assumed that the departure of Government N° 2, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, signified something of import. One word dominated every headline: ‘crisis’.
Macron’s 3 most senior Ministers have all now left office, 16 months from the start of his Presidency. Variously persuaded to join Macron’s Magical Mystery Tour, there were:
- centrist politician Bayrou, three-time Presidential candidate (3rd in 2007 with 18%), joined Candidate Macron when everything hung in the balance – rewarded with ‘ennoblement’ as Minister of State, but soon kicked out by Macron
- environmental superstar Hulot similarly ‘ennobled’; did lots of conscience-wrestling until his surprise end-August breakfast radio announcement: he’d had it up to here (and beyond) and was quitting … not what Macron wanted
- ex-Socialist Collomb (the third Minister of State) was part of Macron Year Zero; Mayor of Lyon (France’s 2nd city) for 18 years, Collomb was the first heavyweight politician to support relatively unknown Candidate Macron.
So what. Move along, nothing to see here. And yet …
Collomb’s departure from being ‘France’s N° 1 cop’ (every paper’s favourite title) was anything but ordinary. Left(ish) magazine Marianne headlined the story: ‘From Macron’s first supporter to Government deserter: Gerard Collomb’s extraordinary betrayal.’
Over a couple of years, what 70-year-old Collomb described as almost a ‘father-son’ relationship had developed between him and the President. There was a regular Monday lunch. Collomb boasted publicly he was ‘the Minister who sees Emmanuel Macron most often.’ Yet the relationship soured. Finally Collomb, Hard Man of Macron’s Government, pushed the President hard, and publicly. Result: an extremely messy divorce.
Open differences first emerged in May. Collomb was asked at a meeting about Government plans to reduce the 90kph speed limit on French roads to 80kph. In refusing to answer, he made clear his opposition to an agreed Government policy, one with the Prime Minister’s own imprimatur.
Relations between President and increasingly outspoken Minister deteriorated over BenallaGate. Macron’s Non-Bodyguard, Benalla, had been filmed impersonating a police officer while beating up MayDay protesters. Collomb – summoned to appear before a Parliamentary Committee – surprisingly denied all knowledge of Benalla, saying it was all a matter for the Elysée. Specifically, Collomb dumped on the Police Préfecture and those around the President. [For what (probably very) little it’s worth, Benalla claims he and Collomb saw each other several times a week and Collomb even addressed him with the familiar tu.] Satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé quoted Collomb: ‘Everyone knows the problem lies with the Elysée. The Elysée hired Benalla. The Elysée let him do idiotic things.’ [Yesterday, Benalla had his opening chat with the investigating judges. There was enough to discuss that he spent some 5 hours there, alongside his new upmarket specialist briefs.]
Over September, the separation-to-be accelerated. Collomb insouciantly bad-mouthed his youngers and betters saying: ‘Perhaps we’ve all variously lacked humility’. Then, fully aware of the President’s love of classics and philosophy, Collomb ruminated thus: ‘There’s a Greek word. Hubris. The curse of the gods. At a given moment you become too sure of yourself, believing you can carry all before you. It’s said that ‘The gods blind those they wish to lose’, so we really mustn’t get blinded … In the Republic’s palaces, we lose the ability to stay in touch with and hear the people.’
In a further paean of (un)helpful support to his boss, he told regional newspaper La Dépêche du Midi: ‘There aren’t many of us who can still talk to [Macron] … Those who speak openly are the ones who’ve been there from the beginning … He’ll end up by supporting me no more … But if everyone bows down before him, he’ll end up isolating himself. By definition the Elysée isolates you … People from the provinces (and I’m one of them) already naturally tend to think Parisians are big-headed and lord it over them; they don’t relate to expressions like ‘the new politics’ and ‘start up nation’.’
Finally, there was an unprecedented exchange between President and Minister. This is certainly not how it’s supposed to be. Man (or Prime Minister) proposes, God (or President) disposes. Yet what an undignified spectacle: President and Minister in hand-to-hand combat. Severe disfunctionality. As Judge Brack says: People don’t do such things. The President would be seen no longer to be in control of events.
Collomb launched his final offensive telling magazine l’Express he’d resign after the 2019 Euro-Elections, so enabling him to prepare his (as he doubtless sees it, triumphal) return to the Mayoralty of Lyon in the 2020 municipal elections. Seven months’ advance notice was perplexing. But Collomb then produced a better plan. Conservative Le Figaro revealed he’d resigned. Then we learnt his resignation had been refused. Next day, Collomb still told Le Figaro he wanted to be off and away: ‘The French people and the people of Lyon need clarity so I maintain my offer to resign’.
Finally. The President’s hand was forced. Collomb’s resignation was accepted around midnight. The punchline was that stoic Prime Minister Philippe got the booby prize of Acting Interim Interior Minister. A doubling up of heavyweight roles that hasn’t occurred since Clémenceau a century ago. All this as Le Monde wrote, reinforces the sense that ‘having deliberately swept aside most experienced senior Party political figures in order to form a team of novices and technical experts, [the President] totally lacks serious candidates to fill one of the key positions in the Republic’. At least it wasn’t Collomb, but Premier Philippe, who was able (on his first day in his new temporary office) to announce the re-capture of France’s Most Wanted Man/N° 1 serial jailbreaker.
A tradition of French Ministerial hand-overs is that outgoing and incoming Minister stand side-by-side outside their Ministry. The New Minister passes semi-bland remarks about The Old. It’s never over-long: the New Minister wants to get hands on their new plaything. This time, Acting Interim Interior Minister (aka Prime Minister Philippe) – forced by his unwelcome appointment to cancel a jolly South African sojourn – turned up 20 minutes late for the hand-over of the Interior Ministry’s keys. Collomb waited symbolically alone for 10 minutes on the Ministry steps in front of rolling cameras, then a brief farewell was delivered amid what most papers called an ambiance glaciale, with stony-faced Premier barely glancing at miscreant ex-Minister.
And will Collomb, after all this manoeuvring, re-capture Lyon in the 2020 Municipal Elections, having won three successive elections? Not a given. Under the slightly odd system which operates here, when Collomb announced his impending return, Lyon’s ‘Acting’ Mayor – in office since Collomb’s departure to the Ministry of the Interior – promptly handed in his badge of office and picked up again as Deputy Mayor. Collomb gets his Mayoral robes when his current Council majority votes him back in office. But what of 2020? What political ticket will Collomb run under? Perhaps Lyon’s voters will help Collomb take a well-earned rest from public service.
Time for constitutional reform. And (why break the habit of a Presidential lifetime?) some inappropriate language too
Collateral damage from BenallaGate was the Government’s enforced withdrawal of its legislation to introduce fundamental constitutional reforms. For the first time, the Government’s overwhelming National Assembly majority of nearly 400 had not, in itself, been sufficient to overcome non-stop guerilla tactics. All opposition parties wanted to try to force Government – and President too, if possible – to fess up to their roles in the illegal hyper-activity of The Man Who Was/Wasn’t The President’s Bodyguard.
The President finally chose last Thursday – the 60th anniversary of President de Gaulle’s introduction of the 5th Republic – to announce that his proposed constitutional reform package would be re-introduced in January. The 5th Republic Constitution gave a (super-)dominant role to the President in French politics. Yet President Macron’s desire to ‘transform’ France has been an increasingly arduous, not to say slow, process. On his recent trip to the French overseas territories in the West Indies (following his New York UN address) he admitted that ‘Things don’t improve from one day to the next’.
The Parliamentary upper house, the Senate, remains dominated by the right. They characterise the reforms intended to accelerate Parliamentary procedures as a means for the Executive to reduce the chances of legislation being amended during its Parliamentary passage.
The right is still more suspicious of Macron’s ‘people’ proposals:
- cut Deputies/Senators by one-third [so removing 173 Deputies and 103 Senators]
- limit individuals to three consecutive terms of office as Deputy/Senator/Mayor of town with over 9,000 inhabitants [which won’t affect Deputies until 2032] and
- elect c. 15% of the Deputies by proportional representation (rather than first past the post).
Above all, it’s the dramatic cut in the total number of Deputies and Senators which really makes Senators twitch. When Macron spoke about the reforms, several commentators noted there was no reference to reducing the number of Deputies/Senators. Speculation abounds that this long-promised reform may be dropped in exchange for the Senate allowing other changes to proceed. Macron’s hoped-for new politics may have been forced to give way to the old means of getting things done.
That same Thursday, President Macron paid homage to The General at Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises. Afterwards, as is his wont, Macron did some flesh-squeezing. What should he encounter but some less-than-gruntled oldies. They did what oldies do. They moaned. They were unhappy about that reduced speed limit from 90 to 80kph. They also had a go about their pensions. They pointed out to the President that the cost of living was going up. Maybe they’d read that think-tank report showing that 80% of pensioners would be €400 worse off next year, and €800 worse off in 2020.
How did President Macron respond? What the President seems all-too-inclined to do. He either delivers a one-line put-down … or gives it the full works and makes it a multiple-line put-down, complete with detailed background – but always including a one-liner to stick in the memory. Generously, he felt the oldies deserved the fuller version.
The President told the whinging pensioners he’d just seen General de Gaulle’s grand-son, who’d told him ‘You could speak really freely [with the General] but the only thing you didn’t have the right to do was complain’.
Macron continued with a freshly-minted trademark phrase, one fitting neatly with his ‘President of the Rich’ epithet: ‘I think the General had the right idea. The country would be in a better place if everyone did the same.’
He went on: ‘We don’t realise the immense opportunity we have … Listen, we live to an ever-older age in this country … You worked, and you paid for the pensions of those who retired before you and didn’t live as long … No your pension isn’t going down, that’s not true, it’s not going down.’ [Indeed it isn’t going down, just not going up at the rate of inflation; and added to extra costs and taxes it leaves pensioners … worse off.]
A few minutes later he met another group of moaners. He told them it was regrettable that ‘everyone only ever looks at the little change which will affect them’. He emphasised ‘some changes will continue’ and that ‘things would go in the wrong direction for everybody if the country didn’t get a grip’.
Has the President alone been given the permanent right to complain?