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Macron’s Political Party Has a Face: Who is Christophe Castaner?

BLOG - 24 November 2017

On November 18th, President Macron’s political party - La République En Marche ! (LREM) - which was founded during his presidential campaign, nominated its general delegate, Christophe Castaner, who now holds the highest hierarchical position within the party. This nomination took place after Macron’s statement during a television interview watched by 9.5 million French people: "I think that our movement must have a face". 

Indeed, prior to Mr Castaner’s arrival, LREM had three faces: Bariza Khiari (Senator), Arnaud Leroy (former MP) and Astrid Panosyan (one of Macron’s former advisors). The party was crossing an endless transition period. Yet there was little competition when it came to identifying a new leader… Mr Castaner was unrivalled: he was endorsed by the President and backed by the political base. So what was the point of this vote? Will this nomination finally allow the LREM movement to smoothly evolve into an "authentic" political party, while remaining distinctly different from more traditional parties, such as the right-wing party Les Républicains?

Who is Christophe Castaner?

A Socialist MP, unknown to the general public due to low media coverage during the previous presidential mandate, Christophe Castaner is now a key player of the Macron galaxy in power. Undertaking a double responsibility, both as government spokesman and as Secretary of State, he guides Ministers and MPs of the majority in their work and public appearances.

After having worked in Ministerial cabinets, Mr Castaner was successively Mayor of the town Forcalquier in 2001, Advisor for the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur (PACA) Region in 2004 and Deputy of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence elected in 2012. He crossed the path of Emmanuel Macron during his MP mandate. Rapporteur of the law on growth, equality and equality of opportunity - known in France as the "Macron law" - he was immediately seduced by a Minister whom he still describes as "fascinating".

In December 2015, Mr Castaner ran in the PACA regional elections but only arrived in third position behind the National Front. He consequently decided to step down in the second round of the election in order for the moderate party to win in the runoff. Shortly after this, Emmanuel Macron suggested he joined the En Marche ! Project, at quite an early stage. Mr Castaner became spokesperson of the presidential candidate, and was later appointed Government spokesperson, this position having served in the past as a political springboard (notably for former President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as former Minister of Education Najat Vallaud-Belkacem).

Unlike many LREM representatives who were elected this summer, Mr Castaner has a solid professional experience in politics, which he forged in rural areas of France. "Marcheur" from the very beginning(in France, we call En Marche! supporters "walkers") and benefiting from a certain proximity with the President, Christophe Castaner was widely perceived as the right person to take the lead of the majority party.

LREM at a crossroads

For a certain period of time, LREM was dubbed a "ghost party" or an "empty shell". All commentators pinpointed the fact that the party urgently needed to reinvent itself. Interestingly enough, rarely in the history of French political parties has a party been so closely linked to a man. Although LREM destabilised the French political landscape, through its digital character and its hyper-centralised organization, driven by a single leader, it now has to establish itself in the long term. Structuring a party that will receive, over the duration of the five-year presidential term, nearly 100 million euros in public money, must be a top priority for the president and his majority, and benefit from a sustained effort. In this, it was probably logical for the president to appoint a person of trust as its leader, bearing in mind that there are upcoming elections in 2019 (European) and in 2020 (municipal).

The strategic choices of the party will be crucial in these forthcoming elections, at a time in which the far left-wing and the far right-wing parties driven respectively by Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Marine Le Pen are growing at a fast pace. In their book Macron, et en même temps … (Plon, 2017), L. Bigorgne, O. Duhamel and A. Baudry outline three different scenarios for LREM’s development:

  1. In the event of Emmanuel Macron's failure, the old left / right bipolarization, revised and corrected, could resurface.
  2. If LREM successfully manages to take over the electoral basis of the Socialist Party, a new left / right bipolarization is bound to emerge. The concept of "Macronism" would thereby become what "Gaullism" was to the old right and "Mitterrandism" to the old left, which are both notions that coined the presidential styles of two popular political figures of France, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand. 
  3. Were LREM to succeed and last, managing to develop on the long run and to find new spokespersons beyond the President himself, the Fifth Republic, which is the current political system in France, will have to adapt. This could raise the question of introducing a consistent amount of proportional representation to legislative elections.

An election played out in advance?

Christophe Castaner’s election appeared to be a close deal. He explicitly benefited from presidential support, which inevitably raised criticisms. Gérard Larcher, who chairs the right-wing party Les Républicains at the Senate, described this method as a move of "the very old world", even though this is precisely the world Emmanuel Macron seeks to challenge. Olivier Faure, who chairs the left-wing Socialist parliamentary group of the National Assembly, was also very critical of the vertical aspect of the presidential decision. He underlined the inability of LREM members to influence the election of the representative of a party claiming to be open and participatory.

So of course, there were criticisms. At first, they did not seem to find an echo among LREM elected officials and activists, for whom this consensus evacuated the risk of a battle of egos, having in the past severely damaged main political parties. Nevertheless, the resignation of 100 LREM activists and executives in protest to Mr Castaner’s nomination did reveal a feeling of general delusion in the face of this "lack of internal democracy".

What next?

Mr Castaner thus had two roles in the French Government. The question remains, once he will be well-established at the head of the majority party, whether President Macron will intend to keep him in the government. In recent history, Nicolas Sarkozy is the only example of a leader of a majority party having combined this function with a position in government. Although Christophe Castaner resigned from his position as spokesperson, discussions are still underway regarding whether he should remain in the very political position of Secretary of State. Indeed, such as position entails acting as a link between the government and all political groups represented in the National Assembly and the Senate. Some commentators argue that his roles entail opposite attitudes and mindsets, that is fighting the opposition as leader of the majority while maintaining a transpartisan dialogue as Secretary of State. In French history of the Fifth Republic, this represents an unprecedented plurality of offices. 

LREM finally has a (single) face. Christophe Castaner is media friendly and has proved to be a leading advocate of government reform and policy making. Yet, the ambiguity in his roles is a challenge yet to be cracked. Will this figure be able to take the very much - and one could argue overly - personalised movement away from the current "Macronmania"? Will he be a strong enough leader for the movement to be anchored in the French political scene? Only time will tell.


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