Macron party leader ‘Casta’ on mission to rekindle grassroots spirit
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Christophe Castaner has been tasked with recapturing the heart and soul of Emmanuel Macron's fledgling party and stamp out the first signs of rebellion. Burly, pugnacious and fiercely loyal, he has the French president’s full confidence for the job.
Just over 18 months ago, Castaner was still largely unheard of on the French political scene. A small-town mayor with a southern accent, the 51-year-old lawyer was one of many Socialist lawmakers watching nervously as the then ruling party foundered in the polls.
But then, out of nowhere, came the Macron bandwagon – and “Casta” sensed an opportunity.
Politics “is about being at the right place at the right time, without necessarily knowing what will happen,” he was later quoted as saying in French daily Libération when reflecting on his change of allegiance.
Castaner was among the very first politicians to jump ship and join Macron’s astonishing journey to the French presidency, quickly climbing the ranks of the En Marche! (On the Move!) movement founded in April 2016.
In an interview with French weekly Le Point he described his fascination for Macron, France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, in almost romantic terms.
“I accept this dimension of love,” he said. “Emmanuel is fascinating. Everything about him is: His career, his intelligence, his vitality, even his physical prowess…”
Castaner’s staunch loyalty has since paid off. After acting as Macron’s spokesman on the campaign trail, he was given a ministerial position and named government spokesman once Macron took office.
“I am one of the few who totally have Macron in my DNA,” he told Le Point. “Today, when someone asks me a question for which I don’t have [an official] response, I know how to handle it, because I know how he [Macron] would react. It’s not often that I get it wrong.”
Managing 'the rebellion'
On Saturday, Castaner was elected unopposed to head up Macron’s movement, which was rebranded La République En Marche (The Republic on the Move), following the presidential election in May.
"It's not a dream, it's not an ambition; it's a chance, an honour, a duty," Castaner said after he was elected by a show of hands at LREM’s party congress in Lyon.
Macron’s handpicked favourite vowed to act as an "organiser, a facilitator" of the movement, rather than its "leader”.
But despite the show of unity, his appointment comes at a highly sensitive time for France’s new ruling party, which has undergone an existential crisis after an exhilarating rise to power that saw its membership soar to more than 380,000. Some members say that far from being the horizontal “citizen’s movement” it was initially painted to be, LREM has become a hierarchical party that is run from top to bottom, with Macron tightly holding on to the reins.
Last week, a group of 100 LREM members penned an open resignation letter in which they accused the party of "contempt and arrogance", and of lacking any form of internal democracy.
Castaner’s mission will be to revive the “grassroots” spirit of LREM and stem the hemorrhage in support. His supporters say his “down-to-earth” style and atypical background mean he is ideally suited to breathe new life into a movement whose professed mission was to topple France’s establishment parties.
Born into a military family, Castaner left home at 17 before taking his school exams. He briefly made a living in Marseille playing poker and freelancing for a local paper, before resuming his studies independently.
His stint as spokesman for Macron’s movement, and then for his government, has earned him a reputation for straight-talking – and the odd gaffe, including a sexist remark about an outfit Rihanna wore on a visit to the Elysée Palace in July, for which he later apologised.
“He’s anything but an oaf,” a source in the prime minister’s office told Libération, referring to Castaner’s occasional brashness. “He uses a simple rhetoric rather than repeating the usual political jargon, and that way it sticks.”