Emmanuel Macron’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, is at the heart of a brutal political battle in Paris this weekend as the centrist French government tries to win a parliamentary majority against a new leftwing alliance.
Beaune, 40, seen as a rising star in Macron’s circle, helped craft the French president’s pro-Europe policy – influenced by his international student days in Dublin and Belgium – and famously piled pressure on the UK during last year’s post-Brexit fishing rights dispute.
But now the career civil servant is running in his first election race, standing as a member of parliament in a Paris constituency that stretches from the tourist attractions and gay bars of the Marais district to the gentrified streets and social housing of the east. It is seen as one of the defining political battles of Macron’s second term.
Opposing Beaune is Caroline Mecary, 59, one of France’s leading lawyers on equality for same-sex couples and a well-known campaigner for LGBTQ+rights, standing for the new leftwing alliance. An Ifop poll at the beginning of June showed Mecary closely beating Beaune at 51%.
If Beaune wins, he will become one of the biggest hitters on the centre-left of the French cabinet and could run one day for mayor of Paris. If he loses he will have to quit the government.
The recently re-elected President Macron needs a majority for his broad centrist grouping in this month’s two-round parliamentary elections in order to have a free hand for his plans to overhaul the pension and benefits system and cut taxes.
But the leftwing alliance, led by the radical left’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and including the Greens and the Socialist party, has been rising in the polls, seeking to limit Macron’s lead. Without an absolute majority of 289 in the 577-seat house, the French president may have to seek alliances on the right. Pollsters predict the left could take up to 205 seats, becoming the biggest opposition force, with Marine Le Pen’s far right potentially taking 20 to 50 seats.
Macron has run a ferocious last-minute offensive against the leftwing alliance, describing Mélenchon as a dangerous extremist who would kill the European Union, ally with Russia, and add to “world disorder”. The economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, called Mélenchon the “Gallic Chavez”, in reference to the former Venezuelan leader. “Does this man eat children?” asked the left-leaning daily Libération on its front page, criticising the government’s attacks on Mélenchon.
On the campaign trail, Beaune told a gathering at a school assembly hall in eastern Paris that this was “the most important French parliamentary election in 40 years because it is uncertain and divisive”. He said there was both “strong anger” among some voters and a “strong sense of disinterest” from others. Pollsters predict that less than half of the French electorate will turn out to vote.
Beaune said Mélenchon’s political programme, including a policy of side-stepping certain European treaty rules, was “dangerous, absurd and excessive”. But what really worried him, he said, was that political debate was becoming more “more and more radicalised”, “divisive” and “brutal” and now needed “calm”.
The central Paris constituency historically voted left before choosing a pro-Macron centrist candidate five years ago, but some supporters warned Beaune there was opposition on the ground to Macron raising the pension age.
Beaune has presented himself as social democrat who defends equality. He came out as being gay to a French magazine in 2020, saying it was “not an obstacle” to being in government, and has also talked about his Jewish family members who were deported to Auschwitz. His father, a former hospital professor of medicine, has helped him with election leafletting.
Beaune’s opponent, Mecary, has led a fierce grassroots campaign, particularly in the east of Paris. A former member of the pro-European Greens who sat as a Paris councillor, she has never been a card-carrying member of Mélenchon’s hard-left party, France Unbowed. She calls herself “foremost a lawyer and a candidate from civil society”. But she is aiming to harness Mélenchon’s support in the presidential election, when he narrowly missed out on a place in the second-round runoff, which pitted Macron against Le Pen.
Leafleting at a market near the Bastille, Mecary said: “What I hear from voters on the ground is a desire for change, and for Macron to not have all the power in his hands in parliament. People are worried about hospitals and schools and protecting the public service. They feel Macron doesn’t see or hear ordinary working-class citizens.”
Visiting market stalls with two staunchly pro-Europe members of the Socialist party, Mecary refuted Beaune’s claims that she was anti-Europe. “When Clément Beaune was five, I was graduating from the Sorbonne in European law,” she said.
“It’s going to be very close round here,” said one retired hospital worker at a fruit stall. “I voted Macron for president only to keep out the far right. Now I will vote left to send Macron a message – to protect hospitals and schools, and not just govern for the rich.”