Weeks after losing the majority, French President is battling to save his government as an aggressive opposition turns up the heat over multiple issues.
In her first address to parliament, French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne said the country must prepare for Russian gas cuts. Yesterday, following the parade on the Champs-Elysees, French President Emmanuel Macron accused Moscow of using this gas as a “weapon of war”.
But the rhetoric against Russia and Russian gas—though not far from the truth—is just a facade that hides a bigger, more serious problem for the Macron government.
Macron suffered a setback in the parliamentary elections last month that saw his centrist bloc fall short of a majority by 39 seats. He and Borne have since failed to tempt opposition parties into a coalition.
During her speech, Elisabeth Borne told MPs that French politicians have forgotten the virtue of compromise and that they “must give the word its meaning back”.
Amid vociferous opposition to her right and left, Borne also warned other parties that “disorder and instability aren't options”.
As the head of a minority government, Borne said that—in giving France a hung parliament in last month's polls—the French people were asking the country's politicians to "do things differently". The prime minister said the government she and Macron lead is "responding to that demand".
The PM is engaging in one of French politics' most important rituals, the "general political declaration" that kicks off the parliamentary session, which is being scrutinised closely given her weak position as the head of a minority government.
When it comes to setting out the government's priorities for Macron's second term, the headline announcement was that France would completely nationalise its debt-laden energy utility, Électricité de France S.A., commonly known as EDF, of which the state already owns 84 percent.
"We must have full control over our electricity production and performance," Borne said in her first major speech to France's parliament. "We must ensure our sovereignty in the face of the consequences of the war (in Ukraine) and the colossal challenges to come. […] That's why I confirm the state's intention to own 100 percent of EDF's capital."
The EDF manages France's big fleet of nuclear reactors, which are facing various technical problems.
Otherwise, Borne adopted her boss's famous en même temps ("at the same time") approach. She promised "radical" action on the transition to a green economy—a big priority for the left. But she also poured cold water on "de-growth", a cherished idea among many French leftists.
The PM said full employment was "within reach" but also said that France must move government spending "towards a balanced state" after public debt ballooned during the coronavirus crisis.
Borne also said that Macron's contentious plans to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64 are "not set in stone" but nevertheless "necessary".
The far-right Rassemblement National's (National Rally) Marine Le Pen reacted to Borne's speech by saying it is "incongruous" that the PM still has her job after Macron's bloc lost its majority. Le Pen said it is the "government's job to decide whether it will be gridlock or whether institutions will work as they should".
Without formal allies in the 577-seat national assembly, Borne has decided not to call a confidence vote on her policy speech—something almost all past prime ministers have done after their first appearances in the lower house.
Holding a vote was "too risky" for Borne, who would have been forced to step down if she lost, explained Bruno Cautres, a researcher at the Centre for Political Research in Sciences Po (CEVIPOF), Sciences Po University.
"She made the right decision, but she didn't really have a choice."
Of the 25 prime ministers who have been appointed since the beginning of the Fifth Republic, only two had not submitted their general policy address to the deputies for a confidence vote.
A couple of days before her speech, the advisers of the Élysée and Matignon multiplied phone calls to try and obtain the required numbers in the Assembly, including calls to socialist deputies of the moderate left and text messages to several Republican parliamentarians open to dialogue. "Many deputies told us 'we'll see'," explains a minister who picked up his phone to gauge the pulse of parliament’s hemicycle.
Submitting the confidence vote in front of the deputies was a risky adventure. “There was a risk that the National Rally would trap us,” a minister’s advisor said, adding that winning the vote with abstention from the far-right would have been politically suicidal for the leftist prime minister.
A few days ago, the first article of a new law regarding disposable income was put to vote but could not be adopted as the president’s party and its allies lack a majority. This was the first major victory for the far-right, echoing the first failure of Macron and exposing his inability to convince voters during the legislative elections.
The country remains politically divided even if the president seems confident and serene lately. But the confidence cannot hide the fact that Macron and his government are facing the biggest political crisis of his career.
Will he be able to steer his ship clear of the iceberg or sink like the Titanic? It’s over to Captain Macron now.
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