Emmanuel Macron’s EU ambitions were dealt a huge blow this week after his party’s leader in Brussels unceremoniously alienated practically all her allies with a bizarre rant.
Nathalie Loiseau, the president’s top candidate in the European elections, had been earmarked to lead a new centrist group in the parliament, uniting liberal forces under Mr Macron’s banner and giving him a powerful voice in Brussels.
But during her first week in parliament Ms Loiseau gathered 12 Francophone journalists for a bizarre off-the-record briefing in which she trashed practically every ally she would need to win the group leadership.
The 45-minute briefing would have stayed off the record, had Belgian newspaper Le Soir not decided to publish details of its contents – enraging Macronistes. The fallout led to Ms Loiseau ruling herself out for the job on Thursday afternoon.
Ms Loiseau reportedly described Guy Verhofstadt, the current leader of the liberal ALDE group, as an “old man who has been frustrated for 15 years”, while senior Dutch liberal Sophie in ’t Veld was described as having “lost every battle she has fought”.
She also turned on Angela Merkel, shaking the delicate Franco-German alliance by describing her as “the problem with Europe”. The German chancellor’s pick for European Commission president, Manfred Weber, was described as “ectoplasm” who had “never been successful”.
French politicians, too, even from Mr Macron’s own party, got it in the neck: outgoing En Marche! MEP Jean Arthuis was apparently said by Loiseau to be “an embittered man”.
Ms Loiseau has denied making the comments, describing them as “pure invention”, but also later apologised for them – raising eyebrows further and possibly making things worse.
Responding to reports of the rant, the MEP Mr Arthuis acidly tweeted: “I salute the political intelligence of Nathalie Loiseau and the sincerity of her denials. A promising entry to the European Parliament.”
French newspaper Liberation also reports a further detail, claiming that minutes before the briefing Ms Loiseau sent an email to her fellow En Marche! MEPs, advising them: “One tip: play it modest, and above all, not arrogant. Predecessors of other political families have not always had this finesse. The French have a bad reputation to overturn.”
An editorial by France’s Europe 1 broadcaster described the incident as a “political carnage”, while L’Obs magazine reports that some in En Marche! now believe Ms Loiseau is “clearly not up to the task”.
Such voracious anonymous briefings against rivals are apparently commonplace in French capital politics, and the incident has raised questions about whether Mr Macron’s En Marche! party has yet quite adjusted to life at the centre of the EU.
But with Ms Loiseau now out of the picture for the centrist group presidency, the French president appears unlikely to get one of his people into the post – with no other obvious candidates presenting themselves, and rivals from other parties seeing their chance. The group this week decided on the name Renew Europe.
Before she led Mr Macron’s election campaign Ms Loiseau was EU affairs minister in the French government, for whom she led on Brexit talks. She made headlines in the UK after she joked that she had named her cat “Brexit” because it always meowed to be let outside but then refused to talk through an open door.
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