French president’s party hit by defections as it picks leader

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FILE PHOTO: French Government Spokesman Christophe Castaner leaves after the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, October 18, 2017. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer/File Photo

PARIS (Reuters) – A revolt by 100 members of French President Emmanuel Macron’s governing party has exposed tensions in the fledgling movement as it prepares to elect a leader handpicked by him on Saturday.

Created about 18 months ago when Macron was still relatively unknown, En Marche’s membership has risen quickly to 360,000 — membership is free — but retaining members could be harder as his popularity has waned following his rise to power.

The activists who quit this week said the party that helped Macron, a centrist, triumph in this year’s presidential election and then won a parliamentary majority had become less open and lost its appeal as a movement that would do things differently.

The number of defectors is small, and none is a lawmaker, but their complaints underline the challenges 51-year old government spokesman Christophe Castaner will face as party chief.

“We need to reinvent our political movement,” Castaner, the only candidate, told party members ahead of Saturday’s party congress. “That is key to accompany the reforms carried out by the government and parliament.”

A Socialist for about three decades until he backed Macron’s election bid, and a former lawmaker from southeastern France, Castaner will aim to change what opinion polls show is Macron’s image of a “president of the rich.”

He will also set out to transform En Marche (LREM) into a more established party with the strength and depth required to compete in the next local and national elections.

The next ballot, for the European Parliament, is in 2019 and local elections will be in 2020 at the earliest.

ARROGANCE, LACK OF DEMOCRACY

Although mocked as an empty shell by rivals from long established parties, En Marche attracted many newcomers to politics and quickly proved effective in propelling the former economy minister of Socialist President Francois Hollande into the presidency.

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