Emmanuel Macron splits French conservatives and charms Berlin

Even before French president arrived in Berlin, Angela Merkel reiterated support

On his first day in office, President Emmanuel Macron took a big step towards dismantling France's old two-party system, by appointing a politician from the conservative Les Républicains (LR) as his prime minister.

After a presidential campaign marked by discord and extremes, youth, moderation and rising above party divisions is suddenly the fashion in French politics.

The prominence of socialists in Macron's entourage had led critics to describe his La République Marche (LRM) party as a remake of the Socialist Party under a new guise.

But Macron's recruitment of Edouard Philippe, a 46-year-old deputy in the National Assembly and mayor of Le Havre, lends credibility to Macron's claim to have ended polarisation between left and right.


"We have to destabilise a part of the right that doesn't identify with the Fillon vote," Macron said in a documentary broadcast by France 2 last week, referring to François Fillon, the hard-right LR candidate who was defeated in the first round of the presidential election.

Macron said he knew that LR party headquarters would not support him. He was not trying to win over the party’s leaders. “I am trying to destabilise them with open arms,” he explained.

Shortly after Philippe was appointed, 22 elected officials from LR and the affiliated UDI published a statement saying their parties “must respond to the hand extended” by Macron.

In the unlikely event LR wins a majority in the June 11th and 18th legislative elections, it will be difficult for the conservatives to impose an LR prime minister on Macron, since he already has one in Philippe.

Though they barely know each other, Messers Philippe and Macron have a great deal in common. Both are graduates of Sciences Politiques and the École Nationale d'Administration, the traditional path for high-ranking civil servants.

Older mentors

Both were encouraged by older mentors: Macron by the philosopher Paul Ricoeur and the former president Francois Hollande; Philippe by the former mayor of Le Havre, Antoine Rufenacht and the former prime minister and failed presidential candidate, Alain Juppé.

Philippe is described as a visceral opponent of the former president Nicolas Sarkozy.

France's new president and prime minister have relatively little political experience, and both gained experience in international business: Macron at the Banque Rothschild, Philippe at the French nuclear power company Areva. Both have a literary bent. Philippe has co-authored two political novels with another Juppé loyalist.

In his student days, Philippe was, like Macron, a socialist. He joined the Opinion club at Sciences Po, whose members were received once a month by then prime minister Michel Rocard.

Philippe returned to the Hôtel de Matignon, the prime minister's office, on Monday afternoon, where the outgoing socialist prime minister Bernard Cazeneuve greeted him warmly as a fellow mayor of a port town in Normandy. "Normans are violently moderate," Cazeneuve said, quoting the 19th-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville.

Taking up one of Macron’s favourite themes, of a France keen on conquest, Philippe joked that “Normans are also sometimes conquerors . . . You are a man of the left. I am a man of the right. Yet we have esteem for each other and we know we must be guided by the common good.”

‘Total confidence’

As they spoke, Macron was flying to Berlin, where he was received like a wunderkind by chancellor Angela Merkel. The German leader reiterated her "total confidence" in France's new president before his arrival.

A crowd gathered outside the chancellor’s office to cheer the new French president. “A few months ago, there was a hostile [anti-immigrant] Pegida crowd,” a German journalist said to Macron. “I never saw such a crowd to greet a foreign leader, singing and dancing in your honour.”

Merkel saluted Macron’s “magical beginning. Something very, very beautiful, people who are optimistic and happy and look towards the future with confidence.”

Europe can be strong "only if there is a strong France in Europe", Merkel said. She and Macron agreed to establish a Franco-German council of ministers after the French legislative elections. Over the medium term, they will draw up a "roadmap . . . to deepen the EU and the euro zone". In particular, they will work for "more coherent defence and foreign policies".

“I haven’t forgotten the messages of anger, concern and dissatisfaction expressed by many French voters on May 7th,” Macron said. “Those of us who believe in Europe must provide proof that it works.”

Both leaders vowed to fight bureaucracy in EU institutions. Both said they would be open to changes in European treaties, which had been a French taboo. Asked why the EU does not establish a “Buy European Act” to counter US policy, Macron said, “Today, Europe defends its businesses and workers less than the US. I want to improve anti-dumping rules.”

Addressing German concerns that he expects Berlin to finance European integration, Macron corrected a widespread misperception. “I never advocated euro bonds,” he said. “I am not for mutualising past debts. That would create a policy of irresponsibility.”

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor