McKinsey affair ‘galvanises’ Macron’s opponents – but gives them a ‘weak weapon’

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As Emmanuel Macron has a significant lead in opinion polls ahead of the April French presidential vote, his opponents are trying to take advantage of revelations that spending on consulting firms has skyrocketed to almost € 1 billion during his presidency. But the controversy seems unlikely to torpedo his re-election campaign.

Just over five years ago, the late ex-economy minister Macron surfaced to the top of opinion polls and rode that wave all the way into the Élysée Palace after an economic irregularity scandal that kibbled at conservative frontman François Fillon.

This time, Macron is the subject of an alleged scandal, as his opponents focus on a Senate report that revealed earlier this month that public spending on management consultants more than doubled from 2018 to 2021, climbing from € 379 million in 2018 to almost € 893. million in 2021. The report also suggested that a major recipient of these expenses, McKinsey, did not pay corporation tax in France in the last decade, a claim that the US company denies.

This will follow Politico broke the story in early 2021 that France relied on McKinsey’s advice in the midst of an initially sluggish rollout of Covid jab.

While the widespread use of such companies is common practice in many English-speaking countries, the French government is expected to rely on the high-ranking public administration to administer instead of enrolling private contractors.

>> “McKinsey Affair”: Macron under fire from election rivals over expensive consulting fees

To assess the significance of the so-called McKinsey affair for the presidential campaign, FRANCE 24 spoke with Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester.

Smith suggested that, for people who already disapproved of Macron, the deal reinforces the idea that he is a haughty “rich president” – but it is unlikely that it will move the wheel of a sitting president who comes high in opinion polls.

What seems to have motivated the French State to pay so much money for consulting services, especially when that work is carried out by the public administration?

Emmanuel Macron has already talked about how many of these were one-off projects, and that was the main motivation. He said it was cheaper to hire consultants to do such projects than to order new white-collar roles, to pay their salaries and pensions. He also talked about how he – even though he has not reduced the service – inherited a reduced civil service, so he felt that there were gaps in capacity. So Macron justified it by the response to Covid. McKinsey consultants have been involved in test programs, vaccinations, health care; all the big tickets that needed a government response.

Macron was very keen to point out that the consultants were involved in technical issues – delivery and so on – not policy. And he tries to justify their use as an economic measure, a way to save money rather than increase public administration and thus government spending.

How does the McKinsey deal affect Macron’s image?

The difficulty with that is that it reinforces the image of “the president of the rich”; it reinforces the image of Macron as someone in the executive class, someone flashy. It provides a powerful rhetorical tool to his opponents, who can point to the purchasing power crisis, the struggle for people who pay for food and fuel – and points out that already rich people are getting richer thanks to the state.

It also creates difficulties for Macron due to the corporate tax issue. It has a scent of scandal over it. Even if you look at what his opponent has said, you have it [populist Rassemblement National leader] Marine Le Pen is talking about a “national scandal” you have [far-left La France Insoumise leader] Jean-Luc Mélenchon too [far-right candidate] Éric Zemmour talks about not hiring consultants.

So the McKinsey deal provides a weapon they can use against him.

Macron’s big appeal has been about competence. The biggest weakness of many of his opponents is that – in the name of honesty – I think most French people look at them and do not think they could rule the country. Anything that weakens that sense of decency and competence around Macron is something that his opponents will address.

But is the deal enough to change the dynamics, less than ten days before the first round on April 10?

I think it will add to the data for people who already dislike Macron. I do not think it is likely that people will not vote for Macron if they are inclined to do so.

I do not think this marks a dramatic change. Governments use consultants. François Hollande used consultants. Nicolas Sarkozy used consultants. This is part of how governments work.

Macron has a technocratic appeal. He talks about getting the job done as efficiently as possible; bring in the best people to do the job. It’s a way of looking at it all and I think there are so many people will look at it.

I think [the McKinsey affair] is a mini-scandal, a weak weapon to use against Macron. But so close to the election, I think that’s all [his electoral adversaries] will be able to throw at him.

Many of Macron’s opponents have a much more populist appeal. Le Pen and Mélenchon will talk about corrupt elites and the idea that this is representative of that kind of politics.

So [the McKinsey affair] is something that his opponents – in the absence of major scandals – will want to use to contrast with Macron’s technocratic stance. This deal will strengthen and stimulate the opposition that Macron is already facing, and as we can see, there is still significant opposition from people with a much more populist framework.

French presidential election
French presidential election © France 24

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