PARIS — In a quiet presidential campaign marred by the pandemic and war, the only issue that has managed to upset an otherwise supremely confident President Emmanuel Macron is McKinsey.
Yes, McKinsey, the American consulting firm.
About a week before France’s election, McKinsey and his closeness to Mr Macron’s government have unexpectedly become a campaign issue – putting Mr Macron on the defensive and forcing his ministers to try to settle the controversy.
The other presidential candidates, frustrated for months by Macron’s refusal to debate, have turned to McKinsey as a vehicle to target what polls have long shown to be one of his major weaknesses: Mr. Macron’s image as an arrogant and unapproachable president for the wealthy, prone to a solitary and secretive decision-making style, unrelated to the concerns of ordinary French people.
The problem has been a few weeks since the release of a damning Senate report showing that McKinsey and other firms — highly paid and politically unaccountable private consultants — made at least $1 billion last year working on sensitive matters for the government long leaked .
That amount already followed an annual increase in work for McKinsey and other consultancies during Mr Macron’s five-year presidency and a sharp acceleration during the coronavirus pandemic and the launch of the vaccine in France.
The 380-page Senate report, resulting from a four-month investigation, described the firms’ influence on the government as “tentacular” and detailed how private advisers routinely attended ministerial meetings and anonymously drafted government reports.
It added that the government’s use of consultants had “become a reflex” as consulting firms were involved in “most of the major reforms” in France, such as overhauling housing benefits or unemployment insurance.
The issue surfaced this week after Mr Macron finally began holding full-fledged campaign events and was confronted with it on a number of occasions. Mr Macron reacted angrily, sometimes justifying the practice of hiring consultants and then trying to deflect responsibility.
“I’m not the one who signs the contracts,” Mr Macron said during a campaign stop in Dijon, eastern France, this week, adding “a lot of stupid things have been said in the past few days.”
Emmanuel Macron’s second term as President of France
With Emmanuel Macron re-elected, French voters preferred his promise of stability to the temptation of an extremist incursion.
But as the issue stalled, the government went on the defensive, rescheduling a press conference for Thursday and then postponing it to Wednesday night at the last minute.
Chloé Morin, a political scientist at the Jean Jaurès Foundation, a Paris-based think tank, said the issue struck several sensitive chords in the French public and alluded to a particular vulnerability for Mr Macron, a former investment banker known as The Politician has set itself the task of making the structures of the state commercially efficient.
“Emmanuel Macron has been accused since 2017, among other things, of being the president of the rich, a president of the private sector, a president of the financial world, and in France there is a great distrust of the financial world, advisers and finance,” Ms Morin said. “And so the image of a president serving the interests of big donors and big banks is being revived.”
Before entering politics, Mr. Macron worked at the investment bank Rothschild. While the overall economy has grown as president, his policy mix of tax cuts and deregulation has tended to favor the wealthy.
Mr Macron’s presidency is also remembered for a series of disparaging comments he made towards ordinary people and their everyday concerns – an attitude that has fueled the Yellow Vests demonstration movement against Mr Macron’s economic policies.
The increasing dependence on private, confidential advisors also reinforces the impression of Macron’s management style. As president, he has welcomed more than any of his immediate predecessors the concentration of powers offered by the presidency in France’s Fifth Republic. During both his presidency and his re-election campaign, Mr Macron has ruled largely in secret, relying on his right-hand man, Elysée Secretary-General Alexis Kohler.
Caroline Michel-Aguirre, a French investigative reporter who co-wrote The Infiltrators, a book about the growing presence of consultancies in the state apparatus, said the government’s use of consultancies was “secretly staged” a democratic problem”.
“It took the involvement of the National Assembly, our book, a Senate commission of inquiry and controversy before the government could finally announce” that it would release figures on government contracts with consulting firms, Ms Michel-Aguirre said.
Mr. Macron remains the favorite going into the first round of voting on April 10. However, he has slipped a bit in the polls. His main rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, has visited communities in rural France and focused like a laser on a single issue: the rising cost of living, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and soaring fuel prices.
Ms Le Pen and most of Mr Macron’s other political opponents have seized the consultancies to accuse Mr Macron of selling the state.
The Senate report says the situation raises questions about “state sovereignty over private enterprise” and the “appropriate use of public funds.”
The opposition-led report focused on McKinsey, even though it accounts for just 1 percent of government consulting spending and earns far less than French consulting firms. The Senate described McKinsey as an outsized influence.
Karim Tadjeddine, the head of public sector at McKinsey’s French office, has known Macron for years, having worked with him in 2007 as part of a government commission and taking part in his 2017 election campaign, leaked emails from WikiLeaks reveal. Many former McKinsey employees have also joined Mr. Macron’s campaign or administration.
“These are people who talk to each other, who know each other, who have been on different commissions together and who ended up helping Emmanuel Macron come to power, sometimes with a little conflict of interest,” Frau said. said Michel Aguirre.
Amélie de Montchalin, a junior minister in charge of the public sector, fought back the criticism, telling Wednesday’s press conference that there was “nothing to hide” and denouncing what she described as “gross manipulation” by political opponents .
Ms de Montchalin said the government has taken note of the Senate report and will limit the use of consulting firms in the future while introducing rules to regulate the practice.
The Senate report also pointed to McKinsey as an example of the sometimes questionable work that consulting firms do for government. The American firm was awarded half a million dollars for an advisory mission on the “future of teaching” that yielded no tangible results, according to government bills cited in the report.
When Mr Tadjeddine was asked about this mission during a parliamentary hearing in January, he seemed unable to describe it specifically.
In addition, the senators accused McKinsey of not having paid any corporate tax in France for at least a decade thanks to a sophisticated tax avoidance policy.
In a statement released on Saturday, McKinsey said it respects “applicable French tax and social legislation” and that “its operating subsidiary paid six years of corporate income tax” in France from 2011 to 2020. A spokesman for the company said it declined to comment further.
Olivier Dussopt, a junior minister for public finances, said at the press conference that an investigation into McKinsey’s French subsidiary had been launched late last year, but declined to comment on the ongoing investigation.