Press play to listen to this article
Few French MEPs can boast about splitting their time between several offices at the heart of the EU — and the seat of French power, the Élysée.
Stéphane Séjourné is one of them.
It is a privilege that has given Séjourné a direct line to an influential EU leader, French President Emmanuel Macron, a rarity for a relatively new MEP in Brussels. And it has boosted Séjourné’s profile, helping the one-time socialist rise unopposed to the top of the European Parliament’s third-largest group, Renew Europe, a centrist, liberal bloc.
But it is exactly that closeness that has worried some of his colleagues in Brussels and Strasbourg, where the Parliament is housed. While his group publicly expresses support for Séjourné’s leadership — backing him by voice vote last week to become the group’s new chair — others are privately wondering whether the French politician will be able to distance himself from his political master now that he is atop Renew Europe.
“Stéphane is open, smart and much less condescending than some of his colleagues,” said one French MEP. “But this is a real take over of a national delegation of MEPs representing the French government.”
“It is strange to see Renew, the gatekeepers of liberal orthodoxy, not sticking to a strict separation of powers,” the MEP added.
The fears over Séjourné’s Macron connections come at a time of considerable political pressure for France, which will take over the EU’s rotating presidency in January, three months before France’s presidential election. Because of the timing, it’s unclear how much leeway Séjourné will have on subjects dear to France but controversial elsewhere, like the push for EU self-sufficiency, or certain aspects of the EU’s “Green Deal” to make the bloc climate neutral by 2050.
“He will have to cut the umbilical cord and show that he represents the interests of the group, not those of Macron,” a Renew official said.
Meanwhile, Séjourné must also govern the disparate ideological camps within the group, some of which are wary the French MEP might push a vision of liberalism — a politically toxic word in France — that does not reflect the free-trade, market-oriented views of veteran group members.
“We come from all corners of Europe and it has always been difficult to balance this group,” said Morten Helveg Petersen, a Danish liberal MEP, who praised Séjourné for being a “political animal.”
“Stéphane,” Petersen stressed, “has a job to do to get this balance right.”
In an interview, Séjourné tried to brush off concerns about any lack of independence from Macron and vowed to bridge the group’s gaps. And with his new post, Séjourné will relinquish his position as Macron’s advisor.
“As group leader, I will not mix up political battles and the institutional game of power,” he insisted. “I will defend the Parliament and the group before the Council and the Commission … I will not fight against my political family.”
Séjourné, 36, is replacing Dacian Cioloș, a Romanian MEP and former prime minister, who recently stepped down as the group’s chair to lead his political party back home.
Though Cioloș’s departure was relatively sudden, it was clear from the start that Séjourné had an upper hand in the sweepstakes to find a new leader, given his alliance with Macron and position as head of the French delegation, the largest in the group.
His only serious contender, senior Dutch liberal Sophie in ’t Veld, withdrew early in the race after not gathering backing from those who saw her as too divisive.
Séjourné’s relationship with Macron goes back years.
After working in Paris’s Regional Council, Séjourné became Macron’s adviser in 2014, when the current president was France’s economy minister.
When Macron became president in 2017, Séjourné came along as a political adviser. He then took a four-month-long intermezzo to lead Macron’s La République En Marche party into the 2019 European elections, helming the effort to pick up Parliament seats while running for one himself.
More than a year after being elected, Séjourné began traveling back and forth between Brussels and Paris to both serve as an MEP and advise Macron on national politics.
The link created ties between non-French Renew MEPs and the French president. Séjourné was largely responsible for bringing Renew lawmakers in September to the Elysée, where Macron greeted them, an honor few French presidents have given to MEPs, particularly those who are not French. Additionally, Séjourné’s partner is Gabriel Attal, another of Macron’s early supporters and France’s current government spokesperson.
Contrast that with former French MEP Joseph Daul, who led the powerful center-right European People’s Party group within Parliament. Although France took over the EU’s rotating presidency during Daul’s time atop the EPP, he never enjoyed similar proximity to the French president at the time, Nicolas Sarkozy.
Before last summer, Macron had his eyes set on Séjourné to replace Stanislas Guerini as the leader of En Marche in Paris, several French officials said. But Cioloș’s departure opened up another leadership route for the rising political figure.
A Spanish speaker who grew up in Argentina and later did an exchange program in Spain, Séjourné has a reputation in Brussels for not being as arrogant as the French are often perceived to be.
In the interview, Séjourné called his rise to group leadership “a huge opportunity at 36 years old.” And he conceded that it would be challenging to govern the group’s blend of “economic liberals” and “political liberals.”
But Séjourné argued the group is unified on its identity and goals, even if it squabbles over tactics.
“We defend the same values,” he said. “Political liberalism is our identity. The dividing lines are more on the transformations to come and how we get there.”
Séjourné pointed to a “Paris declaration” the group’s MEPs signed after their meeting with Macron. The document proposed a broad “coalition agreement” around several priorities, upholding the rule of law, making Europe the first carbon-neutral Continent, building a European health union and developing “a true European Defense.”
Renew Europe’s origins
Nonetheless, Renew Europe is a bit of an amalgam.
After the 2019 elections, Séjourné and French Europe Minister Clément Beaune were part of a team that helped create the group, bringing together members of the Parliament’s old liberal group, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), with Macron’s “Renaissance” delegation. That made the French delegation the largest within the rebranded group, but it also left some Renew MEPs, particularly those from the north and central European countries, wary that France may try to impose its will through the group.
And while Renew Europe now boasts 98 MEPs, the group is still outside the duopoly of the EPP and Socialists & Democrats, which have a combined 334 MEPs and control many of the Parliament’s administrative positions.
Séjourné vowed to “bring an end to the duo between the EPP and the socialists,” and to “fuel a group discussion” on getting more Renew officials in Parliament leadership roles. He’ll also be tasked with seeking out more allies in Europe ahead of the 2024 Parliament elections.
That endeavor could start via a merger of Renew and the pan-European ALDE party, which doesn’t currently include Macron’s Renaissance delegation.
“I am in favor of creating a common political force in the long term,” Séjourné said when asked about a possible merger of Renew Europe and the ALDE party. “But it is up to the party to decide.”
Within Renew, Séjourné gets praise for uniting a flurry of 23 French MEPs, who were almost all new arrivals in 2019. Many had poor knowledge of European affairs and came from civil society jobs.
“He structured the group and allowed everyone to have legitimacy in their field of expertise,” the Renew official said.
“He understands very well public opinion, and what we haven’t had is a very strong political profile confronting populism and the far-right,” said Luis Garicano, a Spanish Renew MEP from Spain’s Ciudadanos party.
But confronting populism and Euroskepticism could create conflict within the group, especially as Macron campaigns against far-right candidates like Marine Le Pen back in France.
Séjourné is described as eager to block any far-right or Euroskeptic MEPs from being handed important posts or topics within Parliament — a topic that also interests Macron.
“If Macron campaigns to be re-elected, there will certainly be a need for Séjourné to stage the confrontation with the far right and show that he will act as a shield against populism,” said the Renew official. “The problem is that others in his group are more flexible with far-right MEPs and consider them as elected politicians.”
The issue will soon dominate discussions within Parliament, as the legislature must name its new leaders in January for the second half of its five-year term.
Some simply see Séjourné’s proximity to Macron as an opportunity to raise Renew’s profile, and a chance for French MEPs to have more influence in domestic politics.
“What I have been suffering from in my country is the lack of responsibility towards the mothership back home,” said Abir Al-Sahlani, a Swedish Renew MEP and member of Sweden’s liberal Centerpartiet, which is not in the country’s current coalition government.
“For Séjourné,” Al-Sahlani added, “it means that there is a responsibility you have to carry.”
Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting.