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Europe

Macron looks to bank seats left and right in Paris lawmaker race

© Joel Saget, AFP | Campaign posters in Paris for candidates in the upcoming legislative elections, May 29, 2017.

Text by Tracy MCNICOLL

Latest update : 2017-05-31

With less than two weeks to go before critical legislative elections kick off in France on June 11, the battle for Paris is on.

Emmanuel Macron and his neophyte En Marche! movement posted glowing scores in the French capital only weeks ago to win the presidency. Macron’s result in Paris in April’s presidential first round was 34.83 percent, nearly 11 points higher than his score nationally. And Parisians rejected Marine Le Pen en masse in the final, giving Macron nearly 90 percent of the city’s vote, well above his 66 percent score nationwide.

Now Macron’s En Marche! – renamed La République en Marche (LREM) for these legislative elections – is looking to turn that presidential performance into parliamentary seats and a majority that allows the party-politics newcomer Macron to push through his centrist platform. With Macron’s inroads this spring shaking up the capital’s entrenched electoral landscape, key races in even erstwhile predictable districts are rife with backbiting, infighting and suspense.

Elections for France’s lower-house National Assembly – to be held in two rounds on Sundays a week apart on June 11 and 18 -- are on the whole harder to predict than a presidential race in that there are reams of candidates – one Paris district’s 26 candidates is the high-water mark this year – and several can advance to the run-off by tallying at least 12.5 percent of registered voters in the first round.

In this year’s race, some safe seats in Paris have gone the way of the dodo – or, more to the point, of the Socialist Party and the conservative Les Républicains, the two political forces that governed France for decades until they were relegated to also-rans in April, each deprived of the presidential final duel.

Macron, for his part, had never been elected to anything before he won France’s top job on May 7. He has made a show of fielding candidates nationally for these legislative elections that represent a change in politics as usual, with an eye on gender parity and promoting newcomers from civil society, mirroring the choices he made for his first cabinet roster this month.

As a subplot, the traditional mainstream parties are fighting for their very existences nationally in this election, while leading lights on the extremes – far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the National Front’s Le Pen – fancy their chances of overtaking that old guard to become leaders of the opposition to Macron. In Paris, the National Front is almost a non-factor; Le Pen scored just under five percent of Paris votes in the presidential election’s first round. Mélenchon, meanwhile, equalled his nearly 20 percent nationwide score and even “won” the first round in the capital’s northeastern 19th and 20th arrondissements (districts).

Heavyweights in trouble

Established heavyweights in suddenly not-so-safe seats include Socialist Party boss Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, who has held a northeastern Paris seat (that takes in part of the 19th arrondissement) almost without interruption since 1988. The Socialist Party is generally a force to be reckoned with in Paris; it has held the mayor’s office since 2001 -- Anne Hidalgo was elected in 2014 -- and 10 of the city’s 20 arrondissement mayors, more or less the eastern half of a capital split up the middle; the Socialists also won 10 of 18 Paris seats in the last National Assembly elections in 2012. But the Socialist presidential candidate Benoît Hamon scored an abysmal 6.36 percent nationally and only 10.18 percent in the capital, leading party officials to fear the worst in June.

Seats in the capital are not only convenient – the Seine-side National Assembly stands in the heart of the city, eliminating weekly travel to meet with constituents – but they come with a premium of prestige and media spotlight, the springboard for a glittering political career. Macron has placed a number of his closest associates in some of the capital’s 18 legislative races. Benjamin Griveaux, his main party spokesman, is one of those; rumour has it Griveaux has his eye on Hidalgo’s job ahead of municipal elections in 2020.

The 65-year-old Cambadélis, meanwhile, is up against the youngest member of Macron’s cabinet, 33-year-old Mounir Mahjoubi, the new state secretary for digital.

Mahjoubi isn’t exactly a newcomer to politics. In fact, a longtime Socialist himself, he worked on the last two Socialist presidential campaigns – Ségolène Royal’s unsuccessful 2007 run and François Hollande’s winning bid in 2012 – and quit as head of the National Digital Council, a governmental advisory body to which Hollande had named him in early 2016 to join Macron’s campaign. Mahjoubi is one of only two visible minorities in the new French president’s cabinet; born in Paris, raised in a working-class family, Mahjoubi holds French and Moroccan passports, although he doesn’t speak Arabic and hasn’t been to Morocco since he was a teenager, he told Jeune Afrique last year. Mahjoubi’s deputy, Delphine O (who would actually occupy the seat in parliament which Mahjoubi occupied in the cabinet) is a 31-year-old former diplomat of Korean descent.

The stakes are particularly high for Mahjoubi, as they are for the other legislative candidates in Macron’s government; the Élysée Palace has ruled that losers in June’s elections will have to step down from cabinet. Mahjoubi had no lesser light than new Prime Minister Édouard Philippe stumping alongside him in the district last Friday.

But Mahjoubi isn’t the only candidate touting renewal in his hotly contested district. Another thirtysomething, Sarah Legrain, is hoping to convert far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s top presidential score in the area into a seat for La France Insoumise; Mélenchon himself appeared with Legrain at a rally in the district on Tuesday.

‘Golden district’ on the right not such a gift

On the right side of the spectrum, another top safe seat – or “golden district” as the French call it – is also in jeopardy. When Les Républicains presidential candidate François Fillon passed the torch on his Left Bank conservative bastion in January to former cabinet minister and 2014 Paris mayor runner-up Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, the scandals that would cripple his campaign were still unknown. The satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaîné would break fake-job allegations about Fillon’s wife Penelope two weeks later. Fillon was still favoured to win the French presidency and must have been feeling magnanimous. “Kosciusko-Morizet can breathe a sigh of relief: Les Républicains have just ensured her political future,” the conservative daily Le Figaro said of the move, emphasising the can’t-lose nature of a district that covers Paris’s 5th arrondissement and large parts of the 6th and 7th.

(The other credible option for that golden seat, Rachida Dati -- mayor of the 7th arrondissement but whose relations with Fillon were notoriously strained -- was likely not pleased with the gesture. A former justice minister, Dati had been quoted in Le Canard Enchaîné threatening that, “If Fillon gives his district to NKM [as Kosciusko-Morizet is known], it will be war and, look out, I have ammunition… I will spoil his campaign.” And the rest, as they say, is history.)

Flash forward to the current race for Fillon’s seat; nowhere near the walk in the park it was cracked up to be for NKM. Long a moderate sparring with hardliners in Les Républicains, the 44-year-old cast herself as a Macron-compatible conservative in the wake of the centrist president’s victory and rumours had her joining his catch-all progressive government. In the end, she didn’t get that call and Macron didn’t spare her in her district by declining to run a LREM candidate against her, as he did with some other sympathetic heavyweights from other political forces.

Meanwhile, NKM’s stated sympathy for Macron’s movement cost her on her right flank, too. Two dissident Les Républicains candidacies – local figure Jean-Pierre Lecoq, mayor since 1994 of the 6th arrondissement, and Henri Guaino, former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy’s Élysée Palace speechwriter – risk splitting the vote and handing a win to Macron’s pick, Gilles Le Gendre. An ex-journalist and political newcomer from the private sector, Le Gendre, 59, has a shot in this district that split almost evenly between Macron and Fillon at around 37 percent each in April’s first presidential round.

“NKM might have the investiture legally; she has lost it morally,” Lecoq told FRANCE 24’s Romain Brunet last week. “She’s Madame Zigzag: zig in the morning with Les Républicains, zag in the afternoon with En Marche! I myself refer to the LR platform. She has gotten a head start and goes a lot further; she has already taken the plunge. The big difference between her and me is loyalty to the party and the electorate,” he added.

On the campaign trail, NKM has indeed had to walk a fine line. Some voters want guarantees she won’t join Macron’s party. She answers in part with a flyer that lays out which Macron proposals work for her (like a new law on ethics in politics) and which do not (like dumping the housing tax for 80 percent of households). “I propose that we go beyond posturing, that we adopt an attitude of common sense,” she told voters gathered in a local café last week.

“There are two currents in Les Républicains at the moment and I want it to be the constructive conservatives that I illustrate who win out,” NKM told Brunet on the trail last week. “And I will defend that current to the end because I don’t want us to shut ourselves away in systematic opposition and caricature.”

Renewal… really?

The watchword for Macron’s forces appears to be merciless renewal – except when it isn’t.

Out of Paris’s 18 legislative districts, Macron’s LREM is only running candidates in 16 of them. Two of Macron’s former Socialist colleagues from his time serving as economy minister in ex-president François Hollande’s cabinet have been spared an official LREM opponent.

One of those is Myriam El Khomri, 39, the employment minister who lent her name to a controversial labour law under Hollande. El Khomri is campaigning as a Socialist compatible with Macron’s would-be presidential majority. But in the same district, which takes in parts of Paris’s 9th and 18th arrondissements, the conservative Les Républicains candidate, Pierre-Yves Bournazel, a Socialist rival, is competing as a lawmaker compatible with the same presidential majority. Two other major players in the district are Paul Vannier, the far-leftist candidate who had Mélenchon himself at his side for a campaign event, and Caroline Haas, a feminist activist backed by the communist and green parties, who once collected more than a million signatures in an online petition she launched against El Khomri’s labour law.

In a neighbouring district (covering the 3rd and 10th arrondissements), Macron’s close associate Benjamin Griveaux, 39, counts as a newcomer with a shot at the job in an erstwhile safe Socialist seat. But to win it, he must beat an incumbent Socialist, Seybah Dagoma, with a similar CV; both Griveaux and Dagoma were once young Socialists in a pro-Europe leftist think tank co-founded by long-time Socialist heavyweight Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Dagoma, who was first elected to the National Assembly at 33 in 2012 and is of Chadian descent, has called Griveaux’s investiture against her “unjust”. “How can you advocate renewal and attack a 38-year-old woman like me who has only one [legislative] term to her name?” she told Le Monde. “Macron is committing a grave error.”

Macron’s LREM has faced altogether more virulent criticism in southern Paris, where his junior minister for European Affairs, Marielle de Sarnez, is facing dissident candidate Armelle Malvoisin from LREM’s own rank and file. De Sarnez, a high-profile import from the centrist Modem party, breaks with the LREM pledges for renewal in that the 66-year-old served as a member of the European Parliament for 18 years until she was named to Macron’s cabinet this month and for 12 of those years she was also a Paris city councillor. Sarnez’s place in cabinet depends, per the Élysée’s rule, on a win in June.

All of which makes for volatile, high-stakes races in the hotly coveted French capital. Stay tuned.

Date created : 2017-05-30

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