The new French government under an all-powerful Macron

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The announcement of the composition of the government to serve under France’s newly appointed prime minister Jean Castex was largely a reshuffle, but with a few notable new arrivals, including the controversial figure of lawyer Éric Dupont-Moretti who was appointed as justice minister. It is also marked by the reinforcement of allies of former president Nicolas Sarkozy to key posts. Ellen Salvi reports on the comings and goings, and analyses the process by which President Emmanuel Macron, with his appointment of Castex, has largely effaced the remaining power of the post of prime minister, and significantly increased his own.

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Aides to President Emmanuel Macron had earlier promised “surprises” in the composition of the reshuffled government to serve under newly appointed prime minister Jean Castex, and which was finally revealed on Monday evening.

But the list of ministers announced in the courtyard of the Élysée Palace by its secretary general Alexis Kohler in fact contained just one, namely the appointment of Éric Dupont-Moretti as justice minister.

The 59-year-old defence lawyer, who enjoys a sonorous high-profile in the media as well as courtrooms, an outspoken critic of what he calls “the dictatorship of transparency”, and who notably gave the sad spectacle of his harsh verbal attacks on the women plaintiffs – and feminists in general – during the trial on rape charges of former minister Georges Tron (who was finally acquitted), succeeds Nicole Belloubet, who exits government.

The largest French magistrates’ union, the Union syndicale des magistrats, greeted the appointment of Dupont-Moretti, a fierce critic of their powers and practices, as “a declaration of war”.

But Dupont-Moretti apart, the French president has mostly introduced a session of musical chairs. Out of the 31 ministers announced, who include 17 women and 14 men, 23 of them were already in ministerial posts under the previous government of prime minister Édouard Philippe, who formally resigned on Friday when Castex replaced him. A number of these have retained their previous posts, some with enlarged briefs. Jean-Yves Le Drian stays as foreign minister, Florence Parly continues as defence minister, as does also Jean-Michel Blanquer as education minister, Bruno Le Maire as economy and finance minister, and Olivier Véran as health minister.

The new government also keeps the exact same political balance as the last. Jacqueline Gourault and Marc Fesneau, both close to François Bayrou, head of the centre-right MoDem party and a key ally for Macron in face of opposition from the conservative Les Républicains (LR) party, maintain their jobs; Gourault as minister for territorial cohesion and relations with local authorities, and Fesneau as minister for relations with parliament.

Franck Riester, head of the breakaway conservative movement Agir, established in late 2017 after Macron, as a maverick centrist figure, succeeded in demolishing the established French political parties with his election in May that same year, is moved from his previous post as culture minister to that of junior foreign affairs minister, in charge of foreign trade. He is replaced by Roselyne Bachelot, 73, a former sports minister under the 2007-2012 presidency of the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, and who has in between times become a regular feature on light entertainment chat-show programmes

French Prime Minister Jean Castex (main photo left) and his 16 principal ministers. © AFP French Prime Minister Jean Castex (main photo left) and his 16 principal ministers. © AFP

To no surprise, interior minister Christophe Castaner has now left government. Castener, a former socialist who jumped ship to rally Macron in 2017, became a symbol of hardline policing, notably during the so-called “yellow-vest” movement. But latterly he upset police unions over what they perceived as his betrayal of the force in face of the recent wave of protest against alleged police racism and violence, announcing measures to crackdown on incidents of racism, and an end to the stranglehold manoeuvre used by police during arrests – which was subsequently overturned.

He is replaced by former junior minister for public accounts Gérald Darmanin, previously a member of the conservative LR party and close to Nicolas Sarkozy, and who has long eyed what is traditionally one of the key ministries in the French government. Darmanin, 37, is the subject of a judicial probe, re-opened in June, into accusations of rape, sexual harassment and abuse of confidence allegedly committed in 2009. The Élysée commented that the investigation was “not an obstacle” to his appointment. Recently elected as mayor of the northern French town of Tourcoing, the new interior minister is entrusted with ensuring domestic security and public rights, immigration policy issues, the organisation of religious institutions and the management of elections.

Darmanin, like education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who was re-appointed to his ministry in Monday’s reshuffle, played an influential role in Macron’s shift towards a more rightwing stance on issues of immigration and secularism, as demonstrated in his interview last October with the hard-right magazine Valeurs actuelles (see this report, in French). As interior minister, Darmanin will have former gender equality minister Marlène Schiappa as his junior minister for citizenship.

Schiappa’s former post has been handed to a government newcomer, Élisabeth Moreno, who until this weekend was a vice-president of Hewlett-Packard and the company’s managing director for its Africa operations. Moreno, 49, who migrated to France with her parents from Cape Verde at the age of seven, is the only non-white in the new government, with the full title of minister for gender equality, diversity and equal opportunities.

New prime minister Jean Castex, gave his first media interview to the TF1 television channel evening news programme on Friday, just hours after his appointment, when he set the agenda ahead by citing three values to which he said he was particularly attached, namely individual responsibility, secularism and authority. Speaking on the subject of secularism, he said: “I cannot accept certain [types of] behaviour, certain deviances, certain [types of] withdrawal, certain communitarianisms,” in a clear reference to sections of the Muslim population.  

Macron took to Twitter on Sunday, when he announced his wish that the new cabinet be “a government of mission and rallying”, in what was a departure from his previously often trumpeting of “a government of combat”. In reality, the composition of the new government illustrates no change of political course, but does confirm the president’s growing move to the Right and thereby also his electoral base. Indeed, allies of Nicolas Sarkozy occupy key posts, with Castex, who was deputy secretary general of the Élysée during Sarkozy’s last year in office, at the helm, Darmanin as interior minister, Bachelot as culture minister and Bruno Le Maire, who served in two ministerial posts under Sarkozy, returned as economy minister.

The new justice minister, Dupont-Moretti, is also close to Sarkozy’s entourage, notably in his friendly relations with Sarkozy’s longserving lawyer Thierry Herzog, who is due to stand trial in October alongside the former French president on charges of “corruption” and “influence peddling” (see more here and here).

After the rout of the president’s LREM party in nationwide municipal elections on June 28th, in which the Green EELV party did particularly well, there was no notable nod to environmentalists in the government announced on Monday. Barbara Pompili, 45, a former EELV member who rallied to the LREM in 2017, was appointed minister for ecological transition, replacing Élisabeth Borne who moves to the labour and employment ministry. But Pompili, who is by nature of her ministry the third most powerful member of the cabinet, carries no significant record as a Green activist, despite her role as junior minister for diversity under the presidency of socialist François Hollande. She left the EELV, where she was regarded as being on the right of the party, in 2015.

Over the past 20 years of changes of France's governments and their reshuffles, the most frequently replaced principal ministers have been those of the interior and environment, with those of defence and health the most stable, as shown in the graph below.

© Mediapart

In economic and social policy, Macron is keeping steady to the previous course with Bruno Le Maire, 51, remaining in charge at the economy and finance ministry. Amélie de Montchalin moves from her previous post as junior minister for European affairs to that of junior minister for the public sector and reform. The 35-year-old was rapporteur of the parliamentary finances commission for the 2018 and 2019 budgets, and as such was at the front of those Members of Parliament (MPs) in favour of removing the ISF wealth tax and the PFU flat tax on capital income.

In an interview he gave jointly to a number of regional French dailies and which was published last Thursday, one day before the appointment of Castex, Macron had insisted that he wanted to change nothing in the political “course” he had set in 2017. Consequently, he said he wanted to relaunch “as of the summer” his reform of the pension system, which was interrupted by the coronavirus epidemic and which had met with determined opposition from trades unions. Questioned about an eventual reform of the 35-hour fulltime working week, he largely sidestepped the issue but commented that, “The debate we had before this [virus pandemic] crisis about the number of years of lifetime [pension] contributions [continues] to be posed”, adding: “We cannot be a country which wants its independence, [its] social, economic and environmental recovery, and be one of the countries in Europe where one works the less throughout life”.

The appointment of Nicolas Revel as chief of staff to Castex also says much about how Macron intends to lead the remaining two years of his five-year term in office. By imposing Revel upon Castex – whose predecessor Édouard Philippe had refused as chief of staff, instead appointing his friend Benoît Ribadeau-Dumas to the job – the French president has finally placed a hold over the small amount of power that still escaped him. Between 2012 and 2014, Revel and Macron’s both served as joint secretary generals of the Élysée under the presidency of François Hollande.

Meanwhile, Macron loses two of his most loyal allies with the exit from the government team of its spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye – replaced by Gabriel Attal, among the first of those who rallied to support Macron in his presidential bid – and the departure of interior minister Christophe Castaner. He has however promoted another fervent loyalist, Julien Denormandie, who now becomes agriculture minister after previously serving as junior minister for territorial cohesion.

Further appointments of junior ministers are to be announced in the coming days.

Beginning after his election in May 2017, Macron placed advisors to work in common between both the presidency and the prime minister’s office, the Hôtel Matignon, officially for reasons of improving coordination. But they above all allowed the Élysée a presence among the prime minister’s inner staff. Before the official appointment to Matignon on Friday of Jean Castex, some of those to serve as advisors to him were given news of their appointments directly from the Élysée secretary general Alexis Kohler.

The clear message is that from now on nothing will be decided alone by the prime minister’s office, and despite Castex’s comments to the contrary. “It is not in the head of state’s intentions to make me a subordinate devoted to secondary duties,” he said in an interview with the weekly Le JDD published at the weekend. When you will have got to know me, you will see that my personality is not soluble within the term ‘collaborator’,” he insisted. But the few margins for manoeuvre that previously remained with the prime minister’s office have been taken over. This power grab, explained by the French president’s frustration at the discussions over his decisions at inter-ministerial meetings, completes a process that began some while ago.

Macron has never really hidden his intention of occupying all the roles. In July 2017, at the very beginning of his presidential term, he addressed both houses of parliament at a congress held at the Chateau of Versailles to deliver his future programme of government, whereas his prime minister, Édouard Philippe, was due the very the next day to address parliament with his keynote policy speech. One year later he envisaged modifying France’s constitution so as to allow the president to directly debate with members of the two parliamentary houses, the National Assembly and the Senate, which until then was the remit of the prime minister.

With the arrival of Jean Castex, Macron is repeating the process. In his interview with TF1 last Friday, Castex said his own keynote speech before parliament outlining future government policy would be made “in the middle of next week”, and then in his interview published this weekend in the weekly Le JDD announced this would be “before mid-July”. But on Sunday the Élysée contradicted Castex by informing a number of journalists that Macron would pronounce himself on policy matters – “probably in the framework of a televised interview” – on July 14th, Bastille Day. Finally, Castex announced his speech before parliament will be on July 15th.

While in the pas the has spoken of how he is “very attached” to the French constitution, he is in fact removing the sense of its Article 20  which states that “the government determines and leads the policies of the Nation”. His all-powerful vision of the presidency has definitively introduced the notion by which, as Jean Castex said in his interview with Le JDD, and echoing Édouard Philippe, “within our institutions, the head of state sets the course, the prime minister ensures its implementation, in agreement with the parliamentary majority”. Which is a fragmentary definition, at the very least, of France’s institutions.

The office of prime minister was already largely weakened with the reduction of the presidential term from seven years to five, which was decided in a referendum held in 2000, and the subsequent reversal of the order of presidential and parliamentary elections, by which the latter are held immediately after the former, ensuring an elected president of a politically like-minded parliamentary majority. Some, like former socialist president François Hollande , have argued in favour of simply doing away altogether with the post of prime minister as part of a larger institutional reform that would, they argue, improve the strength of parliament in the balance of power with the presidency. As things stand a present, the French president, although now responsible for all of the policies put in place by the executive, is not accountable before the two houses of Parliament.    

During his bid for the presidency in 2017, Macron and his election campaign team had briefly considered adopting a proposition to abolish the post of prime minister in their manifesto, but finally dropped the move. However, by now naming a senior civil servant with no political existence, and by imposing upon him his members of staff and ministers, while making clear that his opinion on policy matters would rarely count, Emmanuel Macron has revived the idea, but without reforming the institutions. Surpassing his predecessors, he has now succeeded in concentrating all governmental powers in his person.

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  • Who’s who in the new French government

 

The 16 principal ministers:

Minister of Foreign Affairs: Jean-Yves Le Drian

Minister of the Environment (Ecological Transition): Barbara Pompili

Minister of Education, Youth and Sport: Jean-Michel Blanquer

Minister of the Economy, Finance and Recovery: Bruno Le Maire

Minister of Defence (Armed Forces): Florence Parly

Minister of the Interior: Gérald Darmanin

Minister of Justice: Eric Dupond-Moretti

Minister of Culture: Roselyne Bachelot

Minister of Health: Olivier Véran

Minister of Labour, Employment and Integration: Élisabeth Borne

Minister of Agriculture and Food: Julien Denormandie

Minister for Overseas France: Sébastien Lecornu

Minister of Regional Cohesion and Relations with Local Authorities: Jacqueline Gourault

Minister for Maritime Affairs: Annick Girardin

Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation: Frédérique Vidal

Minister for the Public Sector and Public Reform: Amélie de Montchalin

 

Junior ministers:

Minister for Relations with Parliament: Marc Fesneau

Minister for Gender Equality, Diversity and Equal Opportunity: Élisabeth Moreno

Minister for External Trade (under the foreign affairs ministry): Franck Riester

Minister for Housing (under the environment ministry): Emmanuelle Wargon

Minister for Transport (under the environment ministry): Jean-Baptiste Djebbari

Minister for Sport (under the education ministry): Roxana Maracineanu

Minister for Public Accounts (under the economy and finance ministry): Olivier Dussopt

Minister for Industry (under the economy and finance ministry): Agnès Pannier-Runacher

Minister for Small- and Medium-sized Companies (under the economy and finance ministry): Alain Griset

Minister for Remembrance and Veterans (under the defence ministry): Geneviève Darrieussecq

Minister for Citizenship (under the interior ministry): Marlène Schiappa

Minister for Integration (under the labour and employment ministry): Brigitte Klinkert

Minister of State for Urban Affairs (under the regional cohesion and relations with local authorities ministry): Nadia Hai

Minister of State for social care and the elderly (under the health ministry): Brigitte Bourguignon

(Further appointments of junior ministers are due to be announced in the coming days)

Other:

Government spokesperson (secretary of state under the prime minister’s office): Gabriel Attal

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  • This original French version of this article can be found here.

 

English version by Graham Tearse

  

 

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