François Fillon drops promise of early cabinet appointments 

PARIS — If everything had gone according to plan, Henri de Castries would be finance minister-designate by now.

De Castries helped French conservative presidential candidate François Fillon build his platform. The two became friends and Fillon promised during his campaign that in a bid for credibility and transparency, he would inform voters about his cabinet nominations four months before the May 7 election. De Castries was seen as the top choice for the finance job.

Something happened on the way to transparency. First, Fillon broke his electoral promise, with even his own spokespeople acknowledging it is unlikely he will appoint his prospective cabinet any time soon. Second, even if he did name names, de Castries no longer looks like the favorite to get the finance portfolio.

The cabinet non-decision shows how tough life can be when you’re one of the favorites to be the next French president.

Soon after he pulled off a major upset in the conservative primary, knocking out favorites Alain Juppé and Nicolas Sarkozy, Fillon became the target of attacks from the left and the far right over his plans to reform France’s health care system.

The idea to transfer coverage of so-called “small [health] risks” to private insurance companies ran counter to the French tradition of comprehensive, state-financed coverage for all. Fillon has since scrapped the idea, saying it had been “misunderstood.” He is now rewriting his health care program, having pledged to hold talks with health care professionals.

De Castries, former boss of insurance giant AXA, was accused of being the architect of the doomed health care proposal. He has denied it, and Fillon campaign aides say he was not involved in that part of the candidate’s platform — focusing instead on fiscal and macroeconomic policies.

But the criticism has stuck.

De Castries’ timing has been poor. He announced that he was officially backing Fillon in an an interview with Le Figaro a week ago, just as his prospects of becoming finance minister dimmed.

“I think he has realized by now that he will not get Bercy,” said a Fillon associate, using the name of the finance ministry building in the east of Paris.

Another reason Fillon got cold feet, the aide said, is that it dawned on him that de Castries would not be the best person to defend another plank of his platform: repeal of the much-criticized wealth tax, a Socialist sacred cow that no recent conservative government has dared touch.

 

After 27 years at AXA — the last 16 of which were at the top of the company — de Castries is sitting on a personal fortune estimated at around €40 million.

It’s “hard to picture a finance minister asking parliament to vote a measure that will save him €500,000 a year,” said the Fillon aide.

De Castries has now set his sights on the foreign ministry, another source in the Fillon campaign said. But there’s another snag: Bruno Le Maire, a former agriculture and European affairs minister, is eyeing that job.

Le Maire ran against Fillon in the conservative primary and was badly defeated in the first round. He threw his support behind Fillon and is now the main foreign policy spokesman for the campaign.

 

There are bigger reasons why Fillon is not rushing to appoint his cabinet in advance.

His original promise was to appoint a scaled-down cabinet of 15 ministers: Nearly half of them would be women and nearly half would come from civil society — i.e. would have no prior experience in politics.

“Now he has come to realize that appointing a cabinet will make him 15 friends, but enemies among all the current hopefuls who aren’t chosen,” said an MP from Fillon’s conservative Les Républicains party.

The other reason Fillon is reviewing his campaign promise is that it might make him look arrogant, taking victory for granted even as the political fight is intensifying between the top three candidates — Fillon, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, and Socialist-turned-independent Emmanuel Macron.

“Never sell the bear’s skin before you’ve shot him,” the conservative MP said, using an old French proverb.

As for de Castries, who turned down the chairmanship of banking giant HSBC to focus on his potential new career, “he will just have to realize that politics is as tough a world as business,” the MP added.

 

Source: François Fillon drops promise of early cabinet appointments – POLITICO