Just as the fog was beginning to clear for France, with the election of positive-thinking reformist President Emmanuel Macron, old demons of the French political culture have again reared their ugly heads. And the consequences could be dramatic.
Two ministers have become enmeshed in ethics scandals that risk compromising weekend legislative elections for the government, rendering Macron’s revolution stillborn via the ballot box. Whatever his successes out-tweeting — out-smarting — Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the international stage, his first weeks have been sullied at home, and he will be blamed. But to what extent?
Should Macron decide to dismiss Richard Ferrand, his regional development minister and former campaign manager, and junior minister Marielle de Sarnez — both facing separate media allegations of sleaze — he would be charged with summoning a spectacular storm upon the government. If he doesn’t, and it appears at this stage that he will not, he could pay the price for ignoring one of the biggest lessons of the current electoral cycle: the French are tired of scandals and want exemplary behaviour from politicians.
As in cinema, France is home to auteur politics, where the central figure of the president is responsible for story, script and direction. Consider that he’s also perceived as the star of his own movie, and one begins to see the power and responsibility of the president as “republican monarch” in the French political system.
The French presidency is about great politics, in the Platonic sense of would-be great men facing a series of make-or-break tests in a febrile kingly court atmosphere (France has never had a female president). Seen in the these terms, Macron is the latest in a long line of great and flawed presidents, from the Olympian war leader and statesman Charles de Gaulle to the Florentine intellectual Francois Mitterrand, but also including the pre-revolutionary kings of France (on election night, Macron emerged walking sombre and solitary among the classical statues of the Louvre).
With parliamentary elections in two rounds on June 11 and 18, Macron’s next major test, as it were, is in casting. The centrist broke the back of the French party system of left and right in May presidential elections; named as promised a cabinet drawn substantially from civil society with members from both sides of politics; and reinvigorated the French trope of the “Jupiterian” president — referring to Jupiter king of the gods in Ancient Rome, though equally, if unintentionally perhaps, the distant orbiting planet that, floating above the melee, doesn’t actually touch the Earth of everyday problems. In France, the fuss and muss of ordinary, as against great politics, is the job of the hapless prime minister, also appointed by the president.
France has been in a rare, glass-half-full kind of mood lately. Macron’s win felt like relief then a rampart against rising populism in the West, with Trump pushing the US to the verge of institutional crisis and a Brexiting Britain stuck in electoral mode (Manchester and London traumatised by terrorism; the city under pressure; the currency down 15%, hurting wages and savings).
Confidence in Macron as President is up some 10 percentage points since the poll, raising the possibility that his fledgling Republique En Marche (REM) could now win an outright parliamentary majority — meaning 289 of the 577 House of Assembly seats (one poll according REM even 320-350 seats). Alternatively, he could win enough seats to govern with the left of the right and the right of the left. Herein’s the rub, in fact, because a hostile Parliament would curtail Macron’s capacity to counter nationalism, structure European reform with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and implement the kind of liberalising economic reform France so desperately needs.
Enter the ethics controversies, with Ferrand facing “preliminary judicial investigation” for allegedly helping his romantic partner in a 2011 real estate deal with a mutual insurer he managed. He also stands accused of employing his son as a parliamentary assistant and failing to declare it. Sarnez’s name appears on a list of 19 members of the European Parliament subject to a preliminary investigation for allegedly employing party operatives as parliamentary aides.
The affairs are prosaic and complex but starkly echo the presidential campaign, when accusations of enriching family members sank mainstream right candidate, Francois Fillon. Macron has made a law to “moralise politics” his first major legislative test, with surveys constantly showing that honesty is the most sought-after quality in politicians for the French.
The current controversies have put a grain of sand in the REM machine. If this proves to the point of putting a major brake on Macron in the Parliament, his great revolution risks dying in the egg. Again the French glass would look distinctly half-empty.
France is not out of the woods yet, and these parliamentary elections will be a watershed.
*Richard Ogier is a former France correspondent and Australian Embassy press attache in Paris.