Macron Loses Another Minister But Can Put Lobstergate Behind Him
(Bloomberg) -- Emmanuel Macron has just lost the most senior member of his cabinet, but that’s no bad thing.
The French leader has a Group of Seven summit to host in late August and on the domestic front, a reform of the pensions system to start. He had to put the latest scandal behind him before the summer break.
Just before midnight on Tuesday, Macron named Elisabeth Borne as his new energy minister to replace Francois de Rugy. The new cabinet member, an engineer and former Socialist government official, was picked swiftly in a bid to end the scandal over de Rugy’s lifestyle.
De Rugy resigned Tuesday saying he couldn’t carry out his duties while trying to defend himself from allegations that he used taxpayers’ money to pay for lavish dinners and the costly refurbishment of his private residence.
The 45-year-old, an early Macron backer, was in charge of shaping environmental policy at a time when climate change has become one of Macron’s priorities on the world stage. But keeping a scandal-tainted minister on the job was becoming a liability.
Borne, who will remain as transport minister, has been in Macron’s government since the start. The former chief of the Paris metro system is little known by French voters. A 2018 profile in Liberation newspaper described her as “austere.” RTL radio on Wednesday described her as “a technician” who is “solid.” She worked briefly at the construction company Eiffage and headed urban planning for the city of Paris from 2008 to 2013.
Borne last year successfully pushed through a reform to open French railway services to competition despite a three-month strike that led to transport chaos throughout the country.
“France’s voters want Macron to spend much more time and energy on climate and environment issues; they also expect whoever gets the energy and environment minister job to show some moderation and exemplary behavior,” said Celine Bracq, a pollster at Odoxa.
De Rugy’s replacement will have to seek new ways to raise funds after planned levies on gasoline and diesel were dropped amid violent street protests that erupted across the country at the end of last year. The minister will also handle plans to reduce a tax break on fuel used by truck transporters. Borne will keep tabs with the delayed construction of the Flamanville-3 future nuclear reactor and decide on the potential construction of new nuclear plants.
After Bastille Day celebrations over the weekend, the president moved to stem outrage during a Monday news conference. He said that if an investigation into de Rugy’s lifestyle concluded he took advantage of public funds, he’d be fired.
About 18 hours later, De Rugy stepped down.
It appears lessons were learned from a drawn out saga over disgraced bodyguard Alexandre Benalla last year. Then, Macron, along with his staff, covered up Benalla’s beating of May Day protesters for weeks and later defended him before firing him in July.
Macron’s approval rating plummeted and the “Benalla affair” fueled negative sentiment about the French leader’s governing style that evolved into what become the Yellow Vests movement.
This time around, the worst Macron will endure is likely to be a headache over finding a suitable replacement.
“He was hoping for a quiet summer -- without another saga -- and an intense September with reforms,” said Celine Bracq, a pollster at Odoxa. “But he’ll have to deal with the Rugy affair, and change ministers again. He should be OK, but he could really have done without it.”
Macron has gained on several fronts since May. His approval rating rose 6 to 10 percentage points in opinion polls. He’s benefited from a reasonably blossoming economy, improved jobs figures and a surge in French industrial output.
In photos that went viral on social media, de Rugy was shown feasting on lobsters and downing champagne in the gilded reception halls of his public offices. Online investigative news service Mediapart revealed he spent $86,000 renovating his official apartment and earlier, as the president of the lower chamber of Parliament he and his wife hosted about a dozen lavish dinners.
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