Emmanuel Macron’s first scandal threatens parliamentary majority

MESOP NEWS PROPHECY : “‘Jupiter’ brought down  to earth

Allegations of nepotism against a key aide are taking some of the shine off the new French president’s first weeks in office.

By Nicholas Vinocur – POLITICO – PARIS — A scandal involving one of French President Emmanuel Macron’s closest allies, Richard Ferrand, is casting a shadow over his first steps in power and his ability to achieve a majority in parliament later this month.

Riding high from the president’s almost dream debut in office, the new government at first tried to play down accusations of nepotism against Ferrand, who is a cabinet minister and secretary-general of La République en marche (“The Republic on the move”), the centrist movement founded by Macron that has been transformed into a political party.

The minister had not broken any laws, officials said. But that line of defense started to collapse Thursday when a regional prosecutor launched a preliminary investigation into the case.

Hours later, Macron’s justice minister, François Bayrou, dodged questions about his colleague while presenting the administration’s first bill — on “moralizing” the practices of public officials.“Magistrates are there to rule upon such things,” he told journalists at a press conference about the bill, without referring directly to the scandal. “You are the ones saying these are known facts.”

The Ferrand affair is bringing up memories of recent scandals, namely the one that sunk the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister François Fillon.The Canard Enchainé weekly has alleged that Ferrand, the minister for territorial cohesion, received a discount on renting office space from his partner’s real estate company while he was the head of a health insurance fund. Le Monde has claimed he has used public office for personal gain, hired a deputy’s partner as his assistant in parliament and channeled the health insurance fund’s legal contracts to a former partner.

‘Jupiter’ brought to earth

Just weeks after the 39-year-old Macron sailed to power on a wave of euphoria and anti-far-right sentiment, the Ferrand scandal is now taking some of the shine off his debut.On Sunday, Le Monde praised Macron’s handling of Donald Trump and other world leaders as “flawless.” By Wednesday, the same paper was running a headline about the Ferrand scandal above the fold on its front page.As right- and left-wing parties called for Ferrand to step down, Macron avoided any comment, in keeping with his view that the president needs to be a “Jupiterian” presence — a remote figure above the fray of day-to-day politics. Handling of the scandal was left to members of his administration, who responded by calling on the media to wait for justice to take its course.

On Wednesday, government spokesman Christophe Castaner lectured reporters on how they should not act like judges but stick to presenting the facts. Then he muddled through a question about whether Ferrand’s behavior was in the spirit of the “moralization” law being presented the next day. “The French people are frustrated by a sense that elites are distant and privileged … That frustration predates this issue,” he said.As the scandal grows, Macron’s steadfast support for his top campaign ally is starting to bring up some of those old frustrations, including among his supporters. In Washington this week, Benjamin Haddad, a foreign policy expert who helped Macron’s campaign, said Ferrand needed to go. “I hope he resigns quickly,” he said.

‘All rotten’

In other circumstances, such a scandal could easily be brushed off as the growing pains of a new governing team. But Macron’s party is running in a parliamentary election this month that will determine whether he rules as an all-powerful president, or has to rely on political partners for support to pass his bills.So far, polls show La République en marche winning an absolute majority in the two-round election on June 11 and 18. Two agencies, Harris Interactive and Opinionway, said the party would obtain between 335 and 355 seats in the 577-seat chamber, well above the threshold for a majority.

But such polls were conducted before the Ferrand scandal built up a head of steam.

The risk is that voters who wanted to give Macron a chance might be turned off by a whiff of the old sense of impunity for public officials, and stay away from polling booths. According to an Opinionway survey conducted between May 30 and June 1, as the Ferrand scandal was growing, abstention could reach 45 percent in the election’s first round, way above the level at the last parliamentary election in 2012.

“There are a lot of voters out there who were prepared to say, ‘OK, let’s give this guy a chance. He’s young. He seems to be winning on the international stage. Let’s let him get on with his agenda,’” said Jérome Fourquet, an analyst at the Ifop polling agency, which is carrying out polling on the Ferrand issue to be published next week.“Some of those people could be discouraged. They may decide that ‘they are all rotten’ … For Macron, that could mean the difference between a clear majority in parliament, or being 10 seats short.”

Reforms at stake

The new president wants to press ahead rapidly with an overhaul of rules on hiring and firing to breathe life into a moribund labor market. Then he wants to reform a deeply indebted jobless benefits system, job training and pensions.

Without a clear majority, those goals aren’t impossible to achieve — but they could be achieved more slowly and have a greater chance of being watered down. In other words: more of what ails France.Already, the Ferrand affair is bringing up memories of recent scandals, namely the one that sunk the presidential candidacy of former Prime Minister François Fillon.

Seen as a dead cert to win the presidential election in January, Fillon had hit a wall by mid-February, his momentum broken by reports that he had paid his wife nearly a million euros in public funds to work as his assistant — and that she had done little work in return.

Whiff of Fillon

Fillon’s defense at the time — that what he did was not illegal, but was merely out of step with today’s moral views — is similar to the one being used by Ferrand and his defenders now.

“Fillon made the mistake of thinking politicians could get away with being immoral as long as they were on the right side of the law,” said Fourquet. “What his campaign showed was that the French people are no longer ready to grant their politicians free passes on such notions. They really want change.”

“The best thing would be for Macron to fire Ferrand as soon as possible” — Anonymous En Marche candidate

“Macron ran on the notion of exemplarity, which goes beyond purely respecting the law. He cannot ask voters to think and behave like lawyers.”

Fourquet added that polls would not start to show any effect from the Ferrand scandal until mid-next week, due to technical constraints and the time it takes for ideas to seep into public opinion.

But already, a candidate for Macron’s party who is running in a highly competitive constituency in northern France said that voters were looking at her differently.

“I hear it in the marketplaces: ‘So, what about Ferrand? That’s what the renewal was all about? It’s all the same,’” said the candidate, who asked not to be named. “The best thing would be for Macron to fire Ferrand as soon as possible.” www.mesop.de