Le Maire’s presidential ambitions rankle Macron as succession battle heats up
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PARIS — France’s Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire’s Elysée palace ambitions have long been an open secret in Paris’ political circles, but his recent squabbles with the French president have raised speculation that the popular minister is trying to overshadow Emmanuel Macron.
In recent weeks, the economy minister has increasingly drawn attention for going solo and ignoring instructions from Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne’s office on making public statements.
In true French-style, one clash kicked off over boulangers.
In a rare public display of tensions earlier this month, Macron criticized the economy ministry’s efforts to help bakers facing sky-high energy bills in what was read as a rebuke directed at Le Maire. During a press conference, Macron slammed a government helpline set up by Le Maire’s ministry.
“I tried the number for the helpline I was given, and guess what? It doesn’t work. I’m fed up with the helplines all over the place,” he told a group of bakers gathered at the Elysée palace.
The French president, who is known to run a tight ship, was irritated that Le Maire rushed ahead and announced several measures to support bakers, help that Macron was planning to announce himself, several Elysée Palace advisors told Playbook Paris. Speaking on French television, Le Maire didn’t deny that he might have been the target of Macron’s comments.
Reports of Macron losing his temper during cabinet meetings are familiar fare in French politics, but rarely have disagreements played out in public.
“In politics you have to put your ego, your susceptibility aside,” Macron told BFMTV after the spat. “Our fellow Frenchmen are not interested in whether there are difficulties between one person or another,” he noted.
The altercation between the president and his minister made the rounds in political circles. Aurore Bergé, the head of Macron’s party Renaissance in parliament, summed up Le Maire’s attitude to Macron on this issue more crudely: “Basically he’s saying ‘I’m Bruno Le Maire and screw you’.”
This is not the first time Le Maire has triggered Macron and his loyalists, who note that the economy minister frequently ignores the prime minister’s office and actively cultivates his own networks of lawmakers and politicians.
“The president doesn’t like it when someone isn’t a team player and tries to grab the limelight, so he put [Le Maire] back in his place. We’ve only got four or five years to prove ourselves and some are already thinking about what comes next,” said a government advisor commenting on recent tensions inside the government.
“Bruno Le Maire has never abandoned the idea that he will become president. He is a loyal minister but he thinks he has the same stature as Macron,” he said.
Le Maire 2.0
A graduate of France’s prestigious school for the political classes, L’École Nationale d’Administration, Le Maire spent his life in the corridors of power, quickly rising through the ranks of the French government to hold several ministerial posts. Le Maire served as the secretary of state for European affairs and the minister for agriculture under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, who used to refer to him as “Baby Bruno” — a dig at a perceived rival.
The fluent German-speaker also enjoys a reputation as a cultured man, who quotes Aristotle at press conferences and takes pride in being a friend of writer Michel Houellebecq. In his spare time, Le Maire writes novels (the rumor mill has it that he even wrote cheap romance novels under the pseudonym “Duc William” when he was a student).
His perceived global standing could be an asset in a future presidential race. The powerful minister has built up an international reputation in European capitals and in Brussels where he has embodied Paris’ interventionist approach on industrial policy. His tax fight against American Big Tech and his tough language against the U.S. also made him a key player in the turbulent transatlantic relationship.
Polls show that Le Maire is the most popular minister in Macron’s government and that he became even more popular after successfully shepherding France through the Coronavirus pandemic when he defended massive aid measures to help businesses and consumers wade through the crisis.
Le Maire heads one of the government’s largest and most crucial ministries, which includes the industry and digital portfolios, and as one of the few heavyweights around Macron, he’s in pole position for succession.
“On the center-right and the right of the political spectrum — where Le Maire is positioning himself — you need to show you can master the economics,” said Harris Interactive pollster Jean-Daniel Lévy.
“He’s playing ‘the reliability’ card… He’s also trying to discreetly develop his own voice, he’s not quite on the same line as Emmanuel Macron when he calls for the end of the government’s whatever-it-takes principle,” he said referring to the termination of post-COVID-19 subsidies.
Among the key the challenges Le Maire would face as a contender for the top job would be the need to shed his image as a big spender during the pandemic — if he wants to convince voters he would be a steady hand at the helm. In his New Year’s address, Le Maire called for the end of the “boozing on public spending, that leads to a hangover of interest rates” while Macron has been more wary of cutting subsidies too abruptly.
Macron cannot run for a third term and, while he’s barely into his second term, the succession race is already being discussed openly in Paris’ corridors of power. The next election is set for 2027 and hopefuls for the highest office include the former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Macron ally François Bayrou.
If the economy minister does decide to run for the French presidency in 2027, this wouldn’t be his first go at the biggest prize in French politics. As a rising star of the former conservative UMP party, Le Maire suffered a humiliating defeat in the party’s primaries in 2016, landing just 2.4 percent of the votes, giving credence to those who say he lacks charisma and the qualities for France’s highest office.
Now, he hopes to return as the battle-hardened politician who successfully steered France through turbulent times. In private, Le Maire discusses with journalists the lessons learnt since his failed presidential bid and what his priorities would be in forming a government.
In September, Le Maire was nominated to work on the manifesto of Macron’s Renaissance party, a role that positioned him as one of the likely heirs to Macron’s movement.
But his top-of-the-class image could prove to be a disadvantage in a possible duel with another conservative heavyweight — Philippe — who is now mayor of the coastal city of Le Havre. Le Maire constantly ranks as the most popular minister in Macron’s government, said Matthieu Gallard, research director at polling firm Ipsos, but Philippe is more popular than him.
“Philippe and Le Maire have nearly the same positions. Le Maire has more of a technocratic aura while Philippe is perceived as closer to local people,” said Gallard.
Le Maire is hoping to walk in the footsteps of his predecessor at the economy ministry — none other than Macron. But with four years to go until the 2027 showdown, a looming recession and an ongoing war in Ukraine, walking the talk may prove harder than expected.
Pauline de Saint Remy and Paul de Villepin contributed to reporting.