Following his re-election, French President Emmanuel Macron presented himself as a new president who would form a new government for a “new people”. Observers scoffed at Macron’s reference to a “new people” but I think Macron was referring to the changes in the demographics of France. The president said he would give himself time to reflect on cabinet appointments and his advisors sufficed by indicating that the new prime minister would be a leftist woman and that she would handle environmental planning.
Speculation, leaks, and trial balloons continued over three weeks and some names were suggested, including leftist Elizabeth Borne, former Minister of Labor in Macron’s government, Marisol Touraine, Minister of Social Affairs and Health under President Hollande, Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO and daughter of one of the advisers to king Mohammed VI, Catherine Vautrin, who is subservient to the right, and Julien Denormandie, a young man who is close to the president.
Criteria for Selecting Cabinet Members
Speculation touched on the criteria that will govern the selection of members of the government and highlighted the following:
I- The nominee’s ability to work with the president based on the rules he set, i.e. concentration of powers in his hand and inter-ministerial coordination under his guidance. The candidate shouldn’t be one of those seeking to succeed Macron after the end of his second term and shouldn’t be a widely rejected figure.
II- The composition of the cabinet should send a signal to different sectors of the electorate that the president will pursue policies that win their approval. Observers unanimously agree that the president made the utmost of gains from the right and that the collapse of the Republican Party after its disgraceful defeat had left right-wing voters with little choice, either Le Pen or Macron. For this, observers see that the presidential message should address left voters, particularly since the legislative elections are based on a “single-member districts” system, which reduces the chances of Le Pen’s party victory given its inability to forge alliances. Seemingly, Macron has started addressing left voters since the conclusion of the first round of elections where he frequently underlined the need to protect the environment as well as the purchasing power of the poor.
III- The ability to strike balances and this brings about the question of whether it would be possible to achieve all these important balances. Macron stressed the need to increase the share of women in the cabinet. When it comes to the representation of the intellectual and political currents, the pendulum clearly swings in favor of the left and the center-left as well as parties allied to the En Marche party (i.e. parties of François Bayrou, Édouard Philippe, and perhaps some of former President Sarkozy men and women and socialist politicians who left their parties and supported Macron). The President also needs to create balance between technocrats who are quite knowledgeable about the pure technical aspects, details of portfolios, and corridors of the state on the one hand and politicians and civil society figures who are good at influencing the public opinion and building consensus on the other hand. Finally, a geographical balance should be established so that all regions of France are represented.
Reading into Macron’s Cabinet Appointments
After exhibiting some doubts, President Macron chose Madame Borne as was speculated. The cabinet included 14 female and 14 male ministers and failed to take into consideration the geographical balance.
Macron retained half of the ministers of the previous government, but he assigned them different portfolios. None of the new ministers “defected from other parties”, except for Damien Abad who has been appointed Minister for Solidarity, Autonomy and Persons with Disabilities. On the other hand, the Cabinet lacks “heavyweight” politicians, other than the finance and interior ministers after the retirement of Jean-Yves Le Drian who served as foreign minister under Macron and defense minister during Hollande’s term.
Most of the members of the new cabinet are in their forties or fifties and are relatively inexperienced. Some of them are young politicians who were former members of the Socialist and Republican parties and who joined Macron’s party in 2016 or 2017 and some –whether have previous political experience or not– are graduates from elite schools, e.g. École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the French Army Engineering School (ESAG), the Institut Supérieur du Commerce (ISC), or Instituts d’études politiques (IEPs). For instance, Madame Borne is a graduate of the prestigious École Polytechnique and worked in the offices of socialist ministers, before she became Minister of Labor under Macron. Borne claims to have a leftist orientation but leftists in the opposition say the reforms she undertook refute its allegations. Anyhow, she is more leftist than her predecessors, Édouard Philippe and Jean Castex. She is said to be conversant with different portfolios, work-driven, strict with her assistants, and austere.
Some ministers are successful professionals –a significant number of whom are lawyers, judges, or physicians– who were assigned positions where their professional competence would add value and the overwhelming majority of whom agree that they are the “product of Macron” and they owe him much, or perhaps everything. They belong to the affluent middle classes that benefited from globalization, with a minority coming from modest social backgrounds. A number of ministers reflected the “French diversity,” meaning they have foreign origins, primarily Ministers of education and culture.
In the previous cabinet, the prime minister and ministers of finance and the interior were right-oriented whereas the ministers of foreign affairs and defense were leftists. In the new cabinet, Borne is leftist and the ministers of finance, interior, foreign affairs, and defense are from the right wing. Jean-Yves Le Drian departed after a distinguished career as the head of sovereign ministers and returned to his hometown to be replaced by Madame Catherine Colonna who will serve as the Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Colonna, the oldest in the Cabinet, is a professional diplomat and one of the few people who holds the “Ambassadrice de France” rank (most ambassadors have “Ambassadeur” rank). She served as the French Ambassador to the UK and Rome, was close to former President Jacques Chirac and his ministers Dominique de Villepin and Alain Juppe, and acted as the presidential spokesperson for nine years under Chirac.
Colonna’s unique competence and deep understanding of international relations are unassailable, but questions arise about her relations with the presidential palace. Before Colonna, the impulsive Macron focused on the superpowers and Europe, while cautious Le Drian handled Africa and the Arab world.
Colonna is specialized in European affairs and she is assuming her position at a time the ministry is in a state of anger and resentment after Macron disbanded the French Foreign Service, which leaves her with a challenging task ahead at a precise timing. It is the president who, in all cases, sets the broad outlines of foreign policy and just like any diplomat Colonna will act as per his decisions but the question remains over how to formulate an African policy and whether the minister has the ability to calm the atmosphere between the president and the ministry.
A big surprise in this cabinet reshuffle was the appointment of a young man who is approximately 36 years old as Minister of Defense, i.e. Sébastien Lecornu, who became the youngest minister to hold this position. Lecornu was a promising cadre in the Republican Party before he quit it to join Macron’s team and soon he became one of Macron’s confidence men. Lecornu’s grandfather was a hero of the French Resistance in World War II and this generated military interest in the grandson. However, he opted to politics and civil work and soon he became one of Bruno Le Maire’s men, the latter joined Macron’s team and became his finance minister. Lecornu, who studied law, worked in politics, and served as reserve lieutenant in the Gendarmerie, managed to win the trust of President Macron who appointed him as a Minister of State for Environmental Affairs and Energy at the end of 2017. Gradually, he was assigned critical and difficult duties: closure of a nuclear reactor, initiating the construction of another reactor, and managing communications with the main protagonists in New Caledonia. Later, he became Minister for Rural Affairs and, in 2020, he became the Minister for Overseas Territories. Seemingly, he knew earlier of Macron’s intentions as he has been in frequent contact with army leaders for several months.
Notwithstanding the significance of these appointments, they did not resonate with the French public opinion, which was wondering how President Macron would address the left-wing audience given the pre-legislative elections campaign. The general perception was that Macron would address the Greens by placing environmental policies at the top of the priorities and appointing figures with experience, political weight, and an environmental sense to manage this portfolio and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles and objections from stakeholders –and how plentiful they are in the industrial, agricultural and transportation sectors.
Public opinion was taken aback by measures that they described as “frivolous”. The Prime Minister will manage the environmental portfolio, assisted by two ministers who have a technocratic background and none of them have previously worked on the environmental portfolio. Clearly, the Prime Minister won’t have the time that would allow her to devote herself to the issue and the two ministers do not have neither the political weight nor the experience required to tackle stakeholders. Social media has been teeming with posts expressing deep disappointment on this.
Macron seems to have come to the realization that the Greens’ audience is insignificant and that it would be better to address voters (particularly Muslim ones) of Mélenchon (who came third in the results of the first round of the presidential elections). Macron triggered a surprise by appointing a Senegalese academic to head the Ministry of Education, the largest bureaucratic department in France.
To understand the significance of this appointment, we must be aware that there is considerable controversy among the public over the question of the “French identity”. The majority of the public are of the view that secularism and the French culture should be preserved to absorb and integrate all segments of the population without taking into account the cultural specificities of the immigrants and without allowing or tolerating the manifestations of privacy (the only manifestation meant here is the hijab or the burqa). When it comes to secularism, we need to realize that there are some people who adhere to secularism out of their held conviction and some out of their desire to exclude Muslims or force them to fully embrace French culture. In this regard, the Brotherhood and Salafists constantly strike up trouble, objecting to the unveiling, the curricula, and teaching of French literature given its tolerant attitude towards vice, among others. The slaughter of a French teacher in the fall of 2020 added fuel to the fire.
There is another group (the leftists, the Brotherhood, Salafists, and segments of conservative Muslims) that believes in cultural pluralism and the right of immigrants to their cultural heritage. This group views that the central culture has given rise to colonization and post-colonial policies that discriminate against immigrants, particularly black immigrants, that education should make the French aware of the racist and arrogant tendencies of their culture and educate them on respecting other cultures, and that France is still a racist state and that this is not an emerging trend but a structural problem. In other words, this group wants an education that despises the country’s culture, denounces it, reminds of its crimes, and respects others.
The former education minister in the governments of Philippe and Castex was Jean-Michel Blanquer, a leading member of the first group. Blanquer embraced a policy that sought teaching the masterpiece books of French and Western cultures and tried to address the violence prevailing in schools, particularly by immigrant teenagers. While Blanquer enjoyed huge popularity at some point of time during his tenure, he lost the support of parents at the time of the spread of Covid-19 due to his struggle with precautionary measures to confront the pandemic. Beyond this, his relations with the left-wing unions that are powerful in the ministry were already pretty bad and, after all, he didn’t manage to address the decline of the quality of education of the French language and mathematics.
President Macron surprised everyone by appointing a figure of the other group as education minister, Pap Ndiaye. His quality research and scientific work, sophisticated culture, and tact have been commended by many, but he had earlier implicated himself by attending seminars that the white people are not allowed to attend. He also denounced France’s racism and some of his statements strongly criticized the president.
The rage of the French right and some segments of the left may be understandable. After all, the responsibility of supervising education was assigned to someone who doesn’t like French culture. What makes things worse is the fact that the minister, despite being one of the highly educated intelligentsia, lacks the political and managerial skills that would enable him to move through the woods of the ministry. Certainly, the minister declaring that he is “a pure product of republican meritocracy” won’t diffuse the situation.
Furthermore, Ndiaye’s appointment was accompanied by the dismissal of a number of ministers who staunchly defended secularism and were extremists in criticizing the Islamic dress code.
Macron’s decision can be easily interpreted by “political opportunism”. He wants to attract Muslim voters and prefers that the first opposition be of the far-right and not a coalition of left-wing parties. However, this decision assumes that the right-wing voters have no choice but to vote for Macron despite their discontent.
That said, Ndiaye’s appointment might have been motivated by more noble motives. If the electoral calculations were the only motive for Macron, more Muslim ministers would have been appointed. Indeed, education in France is experiencing an awful decline in the teaching of mathematics and the French language. The issue resurfaced again after the educational gap between the French children and the displaced Ukrainian children was brought to light. The problem is so complicated that there has been a shortage of qualified teachers. In the most recent teacher entrance examinations, many applicant teachers did not pass and those who were accepted were less than half the required number. The president may have estimated that developing education requires defeating the Islamophobic tone and perhaps cooperation between the minister and the teacher unions that embrace positions similar to those of the new minister. Nevertheless, observers –even supporters of the resolution– see that the president is taking a big risk.