By Ingrid Melander and Jean-Baptiste Vey
PARIS – France’s main conservative party splintered and ministers from a centrist grouping quit the government on Wednesday, as aftershocks from a seismic shift engineered by President Emmanuel Macron rippled across the political landscape.
With Macron due to announce a cabinet reshuffle later in the day, MoDem leader Francois Bayrou quit as justice minister, a day after the party’s defence minister said she was resigning too.
Bayrou – a Macron ally since backing his presidential bid in February – was quickly followed out of the exit door by MoDem’s third minister.
The centre-right party is embroiled in a judicial probe into claims it misused EU parliamentary funds and its importance as a Macron ally waned after his Republic on the Move (LREM) party won an absolute majority in Sunday’s parliamentary election.
“It simplifies things,” government spokesman Christophe Castaner said on Europe 1 radio. “We have a majority after Sunday’s big win and we have the wherewithal to govern. So now it’s time to get to work.”
But MoDem’s departure may complicate the reshuffle.
After winning the presidential election in May, Macron crafted a first government that comprised ministers of the left, right and centre, breaking with convention as he extended his support base.
The flurry of departures means he may have to replace MoDem ministers with conservative politicians, which could give ammunition to leftist opponents who call him a rightwinger in disguise.
In a further sign of how Macron has dismantled France’s traditional left-right divide, a lawmaker from the main conservative Republicans party said he was forming a splinter group that would back the president on some reforms.
“We’re working on the creation of … a new force in parliament,” Thierry Solere told reporters, adding the roughly 40-strong group would include Republicans and legislators from the Union of Democrats and Independents.
Macron’s LREM won 308 seats in the 577-strong National Assembly on Sunday, while MoDem gained 42.
The prime minister’s office confirmed Bayrou’s departure and sources told Reuters Junior European affairs minister Marielle de Sarnez, another MoDem official, was also leaving government. That followed the resignation on Tuesday of MoDem defence minister Sylvie Goulard.
While Bayrou and de Sarnez have not commented, Goulard on Tuesday said she was leaving because of the investigation, into whether MoDem used EU parliament funds to finance jobs carried out by party officials in France.
Macron’s choice of Goulard, a European expert well known in Brussels and Berlin, had emphasised his pro-EU push and desire to work towards greater defence integration.
“No other French politician knew how to talk to the Germans in quite the same way. With her goes the hope of more integration in the defence sector. At least for now,” said Britain-based think-tank Eurointelligence.
The resignations add to signs that French voters are becoming less tolerant of allegations of misuse of public funds by politicians.
On Monday, the government announced that Richard Ferrand, a minister for territorial planning – another close Macron ally – was leaving the cabinet to chair the LREM party’s group in parliament. He is the target of a separate judicial probe.
“This evening’s reshuffle will bring in new names from various backgrounds: some will be from the Left like me and others will be from the Right like (prime minister) Edouard Philippe,” Castaner said.
“But some others will be appointed to extremely sensitive posts on the basis of their professional expertise, such as the post of armed forces minister.”
Being a target of a preliminary investigation in France is not an indication of guilt. Prosecutors can decide to either drop the probe or proceed to a full-fledged investigation.(Reuters)