New head of Macron’s party vows to recapture its grassroots ‘soul’

Christophe Castaner, 51, was handpicked by French president, but appointment sparks criticism of ‘undemocratic’ practices.

A fiercely loyal, self-styled “man of the people” has been appointed to lead Emmanuel Macron’s fledgling political movement, La République En Marche (The Republic on the Move, or La REM), promising to recapture the party’s“soul” after a hiatus since the recent election win.

Christophe Castaner, 51, a burly member of parliament with a southern accent, styles himself as both in touch with everyday voters and devoted to Macron’s well-oiled communications machine. He was handpicked by the French president to take over the running of La REM.

Castaner, currently a minister and government spokesman, was a Socialist mayor of a picturesque small town in Provence for more than a decade before becoming one of the first politicians to jump ship to Macron’s centrist project in its early days. He grew up in a military family in the south of France, left school before his final exams – which he retook as an adult – and has a reputation for straight-talking.

At La REM’s first party congress in Lyon this weekend, Castaner was the lone candidate for the role of party director. He was picked by Macron at a presidential palace dinner, then confirmed by a group of party members with a show of hands rather than a secret ballot, sparking criticism from the media and political observers about undemocratic internal party practices.

A small group of 100 party followers went public last week with an open resignation letter, claiming the party had no internal democracy. Others, including La REM members of parliament, responded that Castaner was “the obvious choice”.

La REM, which was created last year by Macron for his own rise to the presidency, remains ultimately driven by its founder and his small team in the Elysée palace, just like other political parties in power in recent decades.

In Lyon, Castaner promised that the movement, whose main selling point had been to do politics in a more open and inclusive way than traditional parties, would stay free, transparent and democratic. He vowed to lead a return to local committees and remain “close to the people”.

The movement was hastily founded by Macron in April last year as simply En Marche (On the Move) when he was still economy minister and considered a total outsider for the presidency. The idea was a centrist movement that was neither “left nor right”, designed to entice people from all backgrounds who were tired of the old parties and political status quo. The aim was to blow apart traditional party politics by re-engaging civil society and brainstorming ideas.

It proved a hugely effective electoral force with thousands of volunteers who knocked on doors, flocked to rallies and distributed leaflets.

After Macron won the presidency in May, the movement – now renamed La République En Marche – became the biggest force in parliament with scores of novice MPs. The traditional French parties of the right and left were left badly wounded.

But La REM, which until now has focused on Macron’s manifesto, must find fresh ideas for future local election battles. At the congress, senior party members said the immediate task was to re-engage grassroots committees and volunteers. It also now faces the challenge of offering something different from the traditional parties.

Christine Hollander, 55, an emergency room nurse who runs La REMin the Drôme as a volunteer and is a newcomer to politics, said: “What’s important now is to really take root in local areas across the country and prepare local and regional elections. Don’t forget we’re a very young party, things have to be put in place slowly.”

The movement currently has over 380,000 members – it is free to join by signing the movement’s charter – but a much smaller proportion of those are currently active. The hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise has over 550,000 members, who join for free when they sign up for the party’s newsletter.