Saturday

23rd Sep 2017

Macron reshuffles French government to ward off scandals

  • Centrist leader Bayrou was a key ally for Macron. (Photo: elysee.fr)

Three days after Sunday's legislative elections, an emerging scandal transformed a technical government reshuffle into the first political test for French president Emmanuel Macron.

Because of a concert organised for Music Day in the Elysee palace's main courtyard, the list of ministers of the second government led by prime minister Edouard Philippe was announced on Wednesday evening (21 June) on the stairs overlooking the presidential gardens.

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It was the latest example of striking the wrong note, threatening to destabilise Macron only a month after his inauguration and just after he had won a landslide majority in the lower house.

Florence Parly, a former Socialist budget state secretary, was named defence minister to replace centrist Sylvie Goulard, who had resigned on Tuesday.

Nicole Belloubet, an academic and member of the Constitutional Court, was named justice minister following the resignation of centrist leader Francois Bayrou on Wednesday morning.

Nathalie Loiseau, the head of the National School of Administration (ENA), the fabric of the French elite, was named EU affairs minister after Marielle de Sarnez, Bayrou's long-standing closest ally, who also resigned on Wednesday morning.

The departure of the three centrist ministers was a blow to Macron, as Bayrou and his centrist Modem party were instrumental in establishing Macron's position within the centre ground during the presidential campaign.

Bayrou presented a bill last week to regulate more and "moralise" politicians' activities, a key plan to deliver Macron's promise of "renewing" French democracy.

The irony, and potential damage for Macron, is that Bayrou and De Sarnez resigned because of suspicions that Modem used assistants who were paid by the European Parliament but were in fact mainly working for the party.

Their resignation had become inevitable after Goulard had decided to quit in order to "freely demonstrate [her] good faith" in the case.

'Lying campaign'

A preliminary investigation was launched in Paris earlier this month after a former assistant to former MEP Jean-Luc Benhamias told judges that he had been employed mainly for party activities.

Earlier this year, another preliminary investigation was opened after an MEP from the far-right National Front (FN) party had written to judges to tell them that Modem MEPs were paying party members with EU money.

The move was an act of revenge in response to an investigation over fake assistant job contracts against the FN, with party leader Marine Le Pen as a prime suspect.

According to French media, five Modem MEPs, including Goulard and De Sarnez, had some 15 assistants paid by the EU parliament for party jobs.

Both Goulard and De Sarnez were MEPs until they became ministers after Macron's election in May.

Bayrou was never an MEP, but two people who were paid as assistants for De Sarnez also worked as Bayrou's personal assistant and as his head of cabinet, according to media sources.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Bayrou said he didn't want to "expose" Macron and the government to "lying campaigns".

He said he was a victim of "slander and defamatory denunciations," fuelled by social networks and the media.

De Sarnez was elected into the French National Assembly last Sunday. She is likely to become the head of the 42-strong Modem group in the assembly. That would give her political clout, as well as parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Another important minister and Macron's own closest ally, Richard Ferrand, also left the government for the National Assembly. He will lead the group of La Republique en Marche!, Macron's political movement, which accounts for 308 MPs out of a total 577 in the lower house.

'Major crisis'

Ferrand was also under pressure over suspicions that he helped his wife to win real estate deals and that he employed his children as assistants in the National Assembly.

"A quarter of the government falls because of financial scandals. It is a major government crisis," said Laurent Wauquiez, a leader in the conservative Republicans party.

But with only 112 MPs, the Republicans are not in a position to unsettle Macron or the government.

This will be even more difficult because, also on Wednesday, some 20 Republicans MPs, joined by 18 MPs from the centre-right UDI party, decided to create their own group called "the constructives," in order to support the majority.

Even while being embarrassed by the old parties' financial misconduct cases, Macron continues his destabilisation of these same political groupings.

Quiet showdown in Barcelona

Thousands of Catalans have taken to the streets, in protest against the Spanish government's efforts to prevent the independence referendum. Both sides know that violence would go against their cause.

EU 'embarrassed' by Catalan 'taboo'

Faced with the growing tension between the Spanish and Catalan governments, the member states and EU institutions would prefer not to get involved.

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