Democracy under 'Macronism' - the dangers of complacency

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Two current affairs sum up the nature of 'Macronism', the approach to government adopted by the French president Emmanuel Macron since his election in May 2017. One involves his chief of staff at the Élysée and claims that he faces a clear conflict of interests between the public and private sectors, the other concerns the hefty discounts that the Macron campaign received on various campaign services during the presidential election. Both stories highlight the same problem: the failure of France's watchdogs to adequately monitor public life. Fabrice Arfi reports.

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On the face of it, the two affairs do not have a great deal in common. One involves the current secretary general at the Élysée – the president's chief of staff – Alexis Kohler and the conflict between his public role and private interests. The second concerns the major discounts that Emmanuel Macron's successful election campaign received from service providers. Yet the two affairs, both revealed by Mediapart, share a common script and also highlight the same failing.

The common theme is the influence that private interests – in this case large companies – have on public life. Meanwhile the moral issue they demonstrate is the persistent weakness of the country's institutional counter-checks and balances; in one case the ethics in public life commission the Commission de Déontologie de la Fonction Publique, and in the other the election campaign accounts watchdog the Commission Nationale des Comptes de Campagnes et des Financements Politiques (CNCCFP). It is an old, familiar French story, one now given new life by the arrival of 'Macronism' in power.

President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée on August 31st, 2018. © Reuters President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée on August 31st, 2018. © Reuters
Whichever way you look at it, the Kohler and 'discount' affairs highlight the seamless links – and the risks that arise as a result – that exist between the peaks of two pyramids of power under the Macron presidency. One of these pyramids consists of the world of politics and the upper echelons of the civil service; the other, the world of business and the private sector. By linking them, the peaks of these two pyramids are liable to produce an overall system whose victims will be, depending on the circumstances, citizens, voters, consumers or even the very idea that we have the right to seek a fair society. In other words, one without privileges.

Let us recap. The first case, revealed by Mediapart, involves Alexis Kohler, the president's chief of staff. On the various occasions he has worked in the public sector Kohler has been in a position to put the state's resources at the service of the Mediterranean Shipping Company, a major Italian-Swiss shipping line with which he has family ties. To whom did he owe his loyalty; his own family or the state?

Martine Orange's investigation for Mediapart has also shown that, having worked in different positions in the Ministry of the Economy and Finances, which dealt with several cases involving the MSC, Alexis Kohler then went on to work for the very same company. This practice is known by the cosy term of 'pantouflage', a system of revolving doors in which a senior official walks out of the civil service and straight into a well-paid job in the private sector. Indeed in the spring of 2017, before the election, the man who is now running the Elysée for President Macron found himself sitting back at the finance ministry – but this time on the shipping line's side of the table.

This particular blurring of roles disconcerted some in the corridors of power. They include the former junior industry minister Christophe Sirugue under President François who has publicly expressed his surprise at fact that Kohler was at the meeting in March 2017.

There have always been conflicts of interest and the Kohler affair is not the first of its kind. One does not need to go back to the 1388 decree by French king Charles VI who, aware of the risks involved, forbade his governors to enter contracts with those they governed, to find them. The current era has more than its fair share of such conflicts.

One example under President Nicolas Sarkozy is that of Éric Woerth, who was both budget minister and treasurer of the ruling conservative UMP party at the same time, a duplication of functions whose shortcomings were exposed in the Bettencourt affair. More recently, under President Hollande, there was the case of presidential advisor Aquilino Morelle. It was discovered that in the past he had discreetly worked for a pharmaceutical firm at the same time as being a member of the prestigious Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS) inspectorate, whose role is to police that very sector.

However, the Macron administration extols the union between public and private as a benefit for everyone probably more than any previous presidency, in the name of two symbols of that “new world” the president is so fond of: efficiency and modernity. In fact, one has lost count of the number of people from the private sector or 'pantouflards' who are in the government and ministerial offices.

So it is no coincidence that some ministers, such as the current health minister Agnès Buzyn, do not even detect any conflict of interest. “The pharmaceutical industry does its job, and I've never followed the herd when it comes to this industry,” the former doctor and academic said back in 2013 during a meeting organised by a firm of lobbyists. “It needs to be pointed out how wanting experts who have no links with the pharmaceutical industry raises the question of the competence of those experts.”

We are entitled to ask if we are not witnessing the gradual blurring of the lines between private and public and seeing the emergence of a new poorly-controlled hybrid, 'pubvate' or 'priblic' sector. Of some kind of merger-acquisition of the two, of the sort that Emmanuel Macron specialised in while he was at the Rothschild merchant bank in France between 2008 and 2012, before becoming François Hollande's advisor at the Élysée.

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