Paris: French President Emmanuel Macron put off a government reshuffle on Wednesday, raising new questions about the depth of political experience in his party and his own ability to keep his administration on track after several resignations.
The president and his prime minister have been weighing the reshuffle for a week following the departure of three ministers since late August, including interior minister and early Macron backer Gerard Collomb.
The resignations have challenged the president's authority and stalled his reform ambitions. Macron, 40, faces multiple challenges in carrying out a significant revamp. Not only must he try to maintain the left-right balance that he made a hallmark of his centrist movement, but also find strong candidates from among a relatively shallow and inexperienced pool of loyalists.
"The president wishes to take all the time necessary to draw up a team in a calm and professional way," the Elysee Palace said in a statement announcing the reshuffle's delay.
Government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux, a member of Macron's inner circle, said there was no reason to conclude that the administration was in disarray after the ministerial departures. "Those who took the decision to leave did so for personal reasons," Griveaux said, underscoring that Macron and his prime minister saw eye-to-eye on the way forward.
"There is no division in the government or the parliamentary majority on the political line we are pursuing, as some commentators would have you believe." Ministers had been expecting the rejig before a cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning. But in the event, the Elysee said it would not happen until after Macron returns from a visit to Armenia late on Friday.
Macron's popularity has sunk in recent months, falling to below 30 per cent, as frustration has welled up over a leader many voters see as arrogant and the architect of policies that favour the wealthy. Impatience has also grown with the sluggish pace of economic growth and job creation. Opponents branded the reshuffle a "tragi-comedy" that exposed a shortage of political experience in the ruling party. At the same time, Macron's Republique En Marche party holds a commanding majority in the National Assembly (lower house), his presidential term runs until 2022, and the opposition is divided, meaning he faces no immediate threat.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe told baying opposition lawmakers there was "no anxiety, no restlessness" inside an administration committed to social and economic reform.
However, Macron may face problems in the months ahead in form of public opposition to his plans for changes to the pension and unemployment benefits systems.
A senior Elysee official said the reshuffle process was taking longer than expected because Macron had redrawn the political landscape and brought in faces from outside politics. "We're no longer in an age where because someone has 15 years of service under their belt they deserve to become a minister," the official said. Macron's rivals are not convinced.
"Macron's ability to attract is pretty weak," hard left lawmaker Alexis Corbiere told BFM TV. "Many are asking themselves: 'What should we do in this mess?' They don't want to be finished politically by becoming a minister in a government that risks descending into crisis in less than a year."
In winning power in May 2017, Macron and his En Marche movement demolished France's traditional mainstream parties. He went on to poach senior politicians from both poles and draft in newcomers to build a government "neither of the right nor left".
But as the lustre has worn off his young presidency, and the impact of early reforms to the labour code and tax rules have yet to filter through, rivals have sought to depict an increasingly isolated figure with diminished star power.
Le Figaro quoted Socialist senator Rachid Temal as saying: "The fact the president has been bogged down by this for a week underlines his weakness on the reserves bench."
While Macron doesn't face reelection until 2022, European Parliament elections in May next year and municipal polls in France in 2020 could turn into a semi-referendum on his mid-term performance, setting his reform agenda back further.
Particularly damaging to Macron in recent weeks were comments made by ex-interior minister Collomb. A wily ex-mayor of Lyon from the Socialist party, Collomb was an early convert to Macronism. But before pushing to step down and return to regional politics, Collomb acknowledged Macron and his team "lacked humility" and warned of hubris - a view which opinion polls show is shared by voters.
"The issue here is not the government but the president, a president who is seen by French people as someone who doesn't listen to them, and even belittles them," said Jean-Daniel Levy of pollster Harris Interactive. "They want fairer policies from the president."