French Contenders for Premier Jockey as Macron Meets NATO Heads

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron jetted off to meet other NATO leaders at the military alliance’s summit in Washington on Wednesday, leaving behind a cacophonous group of self-appointed candidates to become prime minister, but no clarity on when he might actually name one.

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Sunday’s election left a a complex split in the French National Assembly that sets the stage for a very un-French kind of deal-making to try to form a lasting governing coalition. Given how such negotiations work in countries where it’s a regular occurrence, it could take weeks before the next French government is in place.

While the left-wing New Popular Front — which includes the Socialists, the Greens and the far-left France Unbowed — has the most lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, it’s more than 100 seats short of an outright majority in the 577-seat National Assembly. No other parties, including Macron’s, have any clear path to a majority either, based on the other groups with which they have so far said they might be willing to work.

Macron has a free hand to appoint whomever he chooses as prime minister. However, he needs to find a candidate who can survive no-confidence votes, so the person he picks would need to be acceptable, both in policies and personality, to a broad spectrum of parties — hence the ever-increasing number of candidates. As for Macron, he has remained studiously silent on the topic.

Following the far-left France Unbowed leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who put his hand up for the role on Monday — and also threw in the names of three other members of his party as potential candidates — the head of the Socialist Party, Olivier Faure, said on Tuesday that he’d like a shot at the top government job.

“I’m ready to take on this role,” he said.

For his part, former prime minister, Edouard Philippe, the head of Horizons, a party allied with Macron’s group, suggested the president look to the right.

“I think we can bring together a bloc” which “can have a relative majority,” he said in an interview on TF1 television late Tuesday, suggesting a “technical agreement” of center and center-right parties.

Polling company Ifop-Fiducial tested people’s opinions this week of 15 potential candidates for prime minister taken from parties ranging from the conservative Republicans to the far-left France Unbowed. Top of the list was Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who was considered a good choice by 38% of the 1,002 adults surveyed. He was the preferred choice among people who voted for Macron’s group, the Republicans or the far-right National Rally in the first round of the elections.

Tied in second place were Raphael Glucksmann, a member of the European Parliament in the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, and Francois Ruffin, a left-wing lawmaker who quit France Unbowed. Ruffin was the preferred choice among people who had voted for the New Popular Front.

Philippe’s Take

Making his case for a center and center-right accord, Philippe pointed out that Macron’s group and the conservative Republicans collectively have about 220 seats, and that a pact between them would create the parliament’s biggest group — beating the leftist New Popular Front with 182 seats.

Meanwhile, the Socialist party extended an olive branch to some lawmakers of Macron’s movement this week, with Johanna Rolland, the Socialists’ chief negotiator and mayor of Nantes saying her party could work with the more left-wing portion of Macron’s group on some issues. A link like that could also create a large bloc in parliament, though still not a majority.

“We’re not used to creating coalitions, but that’s what we have to do,” Equality Minister Aurore Bergé, who is from Macron’s party, said on France 2 Wednesday morning, noting an outreach from some members of the Republicans. She added that she thought it would take a few weeks to reach an agreement.

For now, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal remains in place, conducting the business of government. The New Popular Front urged Macron not to keep Attal in the prime minister role for long, calling on him to quickly name someone from its alliance — even as it struggles to come up with a consensus candidate.

Also Read: France’s Left Appeals to Macron Allies in Coalition Maneuver

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire is calling on all sides should try to build a “majority of projects” that would continue to defend supply-side policies rather than spending to juice demand. Compromises could involve doing more to boost personal incomes by reducing the tax burden on wages, or strengthening mechanisms to share profits with workers, he said.

“I invite all the Socialists and social democrats to come back to this supply side policy they defended for years,” he said during a briefing with journalists on Tuesday. “We are open and ready.”

The vote has thrown the spotlight on France’s fiscal deficit, especially with every major political group proposing billions of euros in new spending, including the parties supporting Macron.

That has translated into the extra yield investors are demanding to hold French bonds over German securities. And even though the riskiest political outcomes for France’s deficit — a solid majority for the far-right National Rally or the leftist New Popular Front coalition — didn’t materialize, any new French government will likely struggle to drive more economic reforms or find common ground on fiscal policy.

“France today is very hard to govern, and in truth, whichever blocs gets into power, whether with 182 seats or 220 seats, it will be very hard to meet the expectations of the French” and put in place the necessary reforms for the country, Philippe said.

Macron will be back from NATO by the end of the week. While there’s no formal deadline for him to make a decision, the uncertainty is starting to have an effect beyond politics, deferring investment decisions and halting venture capital fund-raising, according to the head of France’s biggest business lobby. And lest we forget, the Summer Olympics kick off in Paris later this month.

--With assistance from James Regan.

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