Ministers lead race to be Macron’s European champion

PARIS — Emmanuel Macron has issued his battle cry for May’s European election but he’s struggled to pick a general to lead the charge.

Now two women in the French president’s government — Health Minister Agnès Buzyn and Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau — are the front-runners to top the candidate list of his La République En Marche (LREM) party, according to senior party officials.

Macron has made transforming and strengthening the EU, and disrupting its political landscape, a pillar of his presidency. But the May election is also a crucial moment domestically. It will be his first electoral test since becoming president, after months of low ratings and anti-government protests by the Yellow Jackets movement.

The lead candidate will not only play a key role in the campaign but also be in pole position to lead the LREM delegation in the European Parliament, making them a major player in Macron’s efforts to turn his European vision into reality.

Macron set out that vision in an op-ed published in multiple European newspapers on Monday evening, calling for a “European renaissance” and proposing a raft of new institutions and a conference to overhaul Europe’s political structures.

All of France’s other major parties have already announced their lead candidates but Macron has remained silent.

Choosing a lead candidate for his party has proved harder than deciding on his message. Macron’s positioning as the only pro-Europe choice has meant that his upstart LREM needs to build a wide alliance, both in France and across Europe. That has made selecting the 79-candidate list a difficult balancing act to ensure different interest groups feel represented.

All of France’s other major parties have already announced their lead candidates but Macron has remained silent. Senior LREM officials say the choice is now between the two female Cabinet members, neither of whom was involved in frontline politics before Macron tapped them for their ministerial jobs.

Buzyn, the health minister, currently “holds the lead” according to an official in Macron’s entourage and a high-level LREM official who didn’t want to be named because the decision hasn’t been made yet. Loiseau, the Europe minister, is a close second. Supporters of each within LREM have been pushing their candidate in the media, testing out the response. Neither candidate has said officially that they are in the running — and neither responded to requests for comment by POLITICO for this article.

Last week Buzyn told French radio “Emmanuel Macron has not asked me [to lead the list],” though she delivered what sounded like a Europe stump speech, saying “the issue here is the reconstruction of Europe, we know that Europe is our future, we will not be able to survive alone in a globalized world.”

Health and Solidarity Minister Agnès Buzyn | Pool photo by Christophe Petit Tesson via Getty Images

Pierre Person, an LREM member of parliament, said Buzyn “embodies [the European project] well, she knows the issues and her profile has echoes of Simone Veil.”

Veil, an Auschwitz survivor, also served as health minister and was the first woman elected president of the European Parliament, in 1979. Beyond both being women, doctors and coming to politics from civil society, the two share a poignant personal history that appeals to Macron. Veil was Buzyn’s mother-in-law, and Buzyn’s father is also an Auschwitz survivor.

Loiseau, a career diplomat widely recognized for her competence on issues like the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, the eurozone and environmental issues, declared last month she is not a candidate to lead the LREM list. She has, nevertheless, raised her public profile lately, taking on Macron’s main opponent.

“She’s recently gained political weight, she’s dared to respond to Marine Le Pen and to take on fake news,” said Rayan Nezzar, who hopes to be on the LREM ticket and was on Macron’s economic advisory team during the presidential campaign.

Far-right leader Le Pen even teased Loiseau in a recent tweet, telling her “we know you want to be the lead candidate, don’t overdo it.” She was responding to a tweet by Loiseau calling her out for siding with violent protesters and with Italy in the recent diplomatic spat with France.

French minister for European affairs Nathalie Loiseau | Jacek Turczyk/EFE via EPA

There is also a third possible option: that of designating more than one lead candidate, even if only one person can be No. 1 on the list. The right-wing party Les Républicains has adopted that tactic.

With less than three months to go until election day, the latest polls show LREM and Le Pen’s National Rally neck and neck, each expected to get 22 percent of the vote.

Whoever ends up leading the ticket, LREM wants to “change the landscape” in the European Parliament, according to Nezzar. That doesn’t just mean upending the traditional divide between the European People’s Party on the one hand, and the Socialists and Democrats on the other, but also more active French involvement.

“Our elected candidates will clearly seek leadership positions in the Parliament,” said Jean-Marc Borello, head of LREM’s nominating commission, adding: “We must get involved.”

LREM also wants to create a new group in the European Parliament, although just how big it will be and who is included will depend on the results.

“We’ve been building alliances for a year. [LREM leader] Stanislas Guerini will be in Sweden soon, we are also talking to the Polish, the Romanians, the Italians, the Greeks — from the center right to the center left,” according to Person.

Representatives of Macron’s party are expected to attend the electoral meeting of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe on March 21, according to the high-level LREM official. Their plan is to build on their base and widen it.

“It’s complicated to find a true balance” — Jean-Marc Borello

The full list of LREM candidates is not expected to be announced before mid to late March, leaving only two months of campaigning. But LREM officials say that isn’t a concern. “European election campaigns are usually shorter because the attention span of the French on the issue of Europe is shorter,” according to an official in Macron’s entourage.

What is of concern is Russian interference, fake news campaigns and a last-minute migrant boat crisis that might play into the hands of the populists and nationalists, according to Person.

Meanwhile, LREM continues the delicate task of putting together its list. “It’s complicated to find a true balance” between various political partners admitted Borello, adding: “Candidates must represent the project, but also the various regions in France, and its socio-economic diversity, as well as have the competence and proven track record on Europe.”

Maïa De La Baume contributed reporting.

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