He may have been dubbed an “attack dog” by parts of the British press for his anti-Brexit sorties, but French Europe minister Clement Beaune is on the defensive in his first-ever election campaign.
After coming second in the first round of parliamentary elections last Sunday in his central Paris constituency, the 40-year-old’s cabinet job now hangs in the balance.
If he fails to secure a seat in parliament in this Sunday’s second and final round, he is expected to resign under a political convention that President Emmanuel Macron has promised to uphold.
Other ministers including environment minister Amelie de Montchalin also have their futures on the line.
On Wednesday, Beaune enlisted well-liked former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe for a tour of a historic covered market near the Bastille square ahead of the June 19 run-off, which will see him compete with a local left-winger.
“I think there’s a danger in this constituency… a victory for candidates who have made very radical statements, reflecting permanent aggression, conspiracy-theorist tendencies and lots of fake news would be dangerous,” Beaune told party activists after the visit.
He added that he hoped former voters of the “republican and European right” would help him block his “extreme left” opponent Caroline Mecary, who took more than 41 percent of the vote in the first round to his 36.
The idea that France faces danger and instability from the newly formed NUPES alliance has been hammered home by Emmanuel Macron after the left-wingers came neck-and-neck nationwide with the president’s Ensemble (Together) outfit in the first round.
The head of state warned Tuesday of “French disorder on top of global disorder” if his supporters fell short of a majority.
Macron’s attacks have provoked howls from left-wing figures like NUPES chief Jean-Luc Melenchon, who called the president’s remarks an “outrage”.
– ‘Never in parliament’ –
Beaune studied abroad in Ireland and Belgium before graduating — like Macron — from France’s elite ENA school for civil servants.
A member of the president’s inner circle, he was made junior minister for Europe after serving as Macron’s European affairs adviser and has enjoyed unusual freedom in the media compared with other members of an often-colourless government.
His tough talk on Brexit, including acrimonious cross-Channel fishing rows, earned him the title of “attack dog” from right-wing British papers like the Daily Express or Daily Mail.
In 2020, he came out as gay in a magazine interview and has spoken about how the capital’s main gay area, located in the constituency he is targeting, was an important part of his personal development.
Somewhat stiff and hesitant, Beaune let practiced campaigner Phillippe take the lead for much of the pair’s trail around the streets of the 12th district on Wednesday.
Putting on an affable air in an open-collared shirt and comfortable shoes, the white-bearded mayor of northern port city Le Havre joked with stall-holders and patted people on the back as he made his rounds.
Speaking to Ensemble activists, he vaunted Beaune’s big-picture European credentials, contrasting them with NUPES’ vow to brush aside European fiscal rules if they prevent planned increases in public spending.
Local fruit and vegetable seller Sybille Costaz was more concerned about local issues like new bike lanes hampering access to the market and fees eating into her business’ slow recovery from Covid-19.
“We’ve lost 30 percent of our revenue, but the charges keep coming, that’s what I told him just now, to help us, because it’s complicated,” Costaz said.
Beaune’s opponent Mecary, a gay rights lawyer, has made his ministerial status an angle of attack, telling AFP last week that “if he’s elected, he’ll never be in parliament” to push local issues. Ministers are replaced on the benches by a stand-in while carrying out their government functions.
“I’ll be an MP on the ground, who fights” for the constituency, she added.
– ‘Get a move on’ –
Beaune’s canvassing Wednesday was not fruitless, with one woman shopping with her baby in a pushchair telling him “of course!”, when he asked if he could count on her vote.
And butcher Jerome was more sanguine about his situation than fruit seller Costaz, saying there was “a good recovery” and “we can’t complain after Covid” — and confirming he would vote for Beaune after speaking to him Wednesday morning.
“It’s good that you guys are all pushing (to get elected), because you’ve got to get a move on!” one restaurant owner told the two politicians as they passed in the street.
But the pair were also heckled as “social wreckers” by pensioner Jean-Luc as he passed them in the street.
“They’re liars, they’re swindlers, they’re against the French people, just defending a little caste of the rich… we really have to beat them,” he later told AFP.
“If Jean-Luc Melenchon becomes prime minister, my pension will be increased by 400 euros” ($420), he added.