The ‘McKinsey-gate’, the inopportune controversy for Macron in the final stretch of the campaign | International
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It is a stone in the shoe of the centrist Emmanuel Macron in the last days of this strange campaign for the presidential elections on April 10 and 24. The controversy feeds the war of nerves against the French president, favorite for re-election, and the fear in his ranks that his main rival, the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, ends up giving the surprise.
They call him the McKinsey caseand in social networks emphatically there is talk of McKinsey-gate, by the name of the American consultancy that, like other firms in the sector, has benefited for years from contracts from the French public administration. “State scandal!” Some of Macron’s rivals cry out, although the practices he is accused of – the State’s growing recourse to external and private consultants – are neither illegal, nor did they begin with the current president, nor have they produced any evidence of corruption, nor are they exclusive to France.
It does not matter. The Senate, dominated by the conservative opposition, published on March 17 the final report of an investigation commission with striking data. Between 2018, when Macron had just arrived at the Elysee, and 2021, the French government went from spending 380 million euros on consultancies to disbursing 894 million. The figure exceeds 1,000 million if other State agencies are included.
The report described a “tentacular phenomenon”, warned of the danger of a “dependence” of the Administration on the consultants, denounced the “opacity” about its role in government management, and put the accent on a specific consultant: McKinsey. The senators pointed out that McKinsey, taking advantage of the so-called “tax optimization mechanisms”, did not pay corporate tax in France between 2011 and 2020. But this company represents a minimal part of the contracts for these years. It did have a prominent role during the pandemic and the implementation of the vaccination plan. And it so happens that McKinsey employees and managers in France participated in the Macron campaign in 2017.
“All of this raises some questions,” says Arnaud Bontemps, a senior civil servant and spokesman for the Nos services publics collective, by phone. “Does the State still have the means to do its job? Does it depend on consulting firms, which sometimes have interests other than the general interest, as seen with McKinsey’s tax optimization? And, finally, there is the issue of transparency and democracy”, he says. Bontemps adds: “We have the impression that they replace the State in an ideologically non-neutral way.”
The president and candidate is forced these days to give explanations in each interview, in each electoral act. “You have to be clear, because it gives the impression that there is cheating, and it is false,” he defended himself on Sunday on the France 2 network, aware that, although no one has shown that the contracts have violated any rule, the McKinsey case has all the ingredients to harm him in this campaign at half gas and marked by the war in Ukraine.
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The ingredients are an “Anglo-Saxon” multinational, a common adjective in France that does not usually have positive connotations. And, opposite, the State, which in few democratic countries has the place it occupies in France, and its high priests: the high officials displaced by the anonymous consultants.
Another ingredient: for a sector of the electorate, Macron is still basically a “banker”, since he worked in the Rothschild bank before entering politics, and the “president of the rich”, because of his tax cuts. The McKinsey label adheres perfectly to this cartoon. And, shaken up in the electoral shaker, all these ingredients reinforce the image that some rivals draw of him: the elitist and liberal president who, during his five-year term, wanted to manage France and his sacrosanct State as a private company or a start-up (France in start-up modewas precisely the title of a book published in 2017 with a foreword by Macron and a contribution… by one of the leaders of McKinsey).
The case strikes a chord in France, and Macron has moved to defuse it as soon as possible. He does not want a controversy that would possibly have no further run at another time – or in any case would open a substantive debate on the organization of the State – to derail the campaign with little more than a week to go before the first round.
“I am not against public-private partnerships. What shocks the French is that McKinsey has not paid taxes in France for ten years, ”said Valérie Pécresse, a candidate for the Republicans, the traditional right-wing party, on the LCI network. “There is a feeling that Emmanuel Macron is not transparent and has a hidden agenda, financial or political, and this may disturb his candidacy,” she added.
On Wednesday, the Ministers of the Administration, Amélie de Montchalin, and Budgets, Olivier Dussopt, called a press conference to explain themselves. The argument is that the State turns to these companies for missions for which it does not have adequate skills, or in exceptional crises such as the pandemic. And that, although they frequently work in the machinery room of the ministries, they do not make political decisions. “The rules of the public markets are respected,” Montachalin said. “No consulting cabinet has decided on any reform: the decision always corresponds to the State,” Dussopt assured.
The outsourcing of public services is not a novelty. On infiltrated them, a book published at the beginning of the year, the journalists Matthieu Aron and Caroline Michel-Aguirre recall that the use of consultants began to soar during the five-year term of President Nicolas Sarkozy, between 2007 and 2012, on the occasion of a reform that contemplated that only one of two retired officials would be replaced. Aron and Michel-Aguirre speak of “a putsch progressive, almost rampant, without blood, but which, from the inside, has changed France”. “For 20 years,” they say, “consulting offices have been installed in the heart of the State.”
There is nothing atypical when compared to surrounding countries. France devotes 0.27% of total spending on public personnel to private consultancies, according to a report by the National Assembly. The United Kingdom, 1.23%; Germany, 1.25%; Spain, according to the same report, spends 0.32%.
If in France this is a reason for discussion, perhaps it is because of the sacralization of the State and of the high civil service in this country. And for the elections. The polls are unanimous: Macron and Le Pen would qualify for the second round today and Macron would be re-elected. But the margins narrow. And there are nerves in the Macronist ranks. An error, a controversy out of control, can cost dearly.
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