PARIS — Opponents of French President Emmanuel Macron have come up with a ruse to rile him over the final stretch of what he hopes will be his re-election campaign: For every idea he proposes, ask if it comes from McKinsey.
The government’s use of consultancies during Macron’s presidency has become a thorn in his campaign, to the point that two ministers took to the stage on Wednesday to try to shield Macron from a growing controversy just days ahead of the first-round of the presidential election.
“We have nothing to hide,” said Minister of Public Transformation and Service Amélie de Montchalin at a press conference, alongside Budget Minister Olivier Dussopt, who said the debate about the use of consultancies had become the object of “political exploitation” and “crude manipulation.”
Both were referring to a nationwide debate sparked by a parliamentary report published by opposition lawmakers earlier this month on the same day that Macron presented his political platform – and a year after POLITICO first reported that the government hired leading consultancy firm McKinsey to help with its COVID vaccine rollout, raising questions over the overall use of consultancies.
After a four-month investigation, senators found that Macron’s government and French public administrations have signed contracts worth at least €2.4 billion with consultancy firms since 2018 to work on subjects ranging from pension reform to digital transformation, and that the use of consultancies has jumped during his five-year term.
Lawmakers also said that McKinsey did not pay corporate tax in France for at least 10 years — an accusation the firm denies.
As the chorus of criticism has grown louder the hashtag #McKinseyGate has spread on social media, Macron and his ministers have had to react.
The president said Sunday that public procurement rules had been respected. Critics make it sound like “there are shady deals, but that’s not the case,” he said. He challenged his opponents to “got to court,” if there was “evidence of manipulation [of the rules].” His tetchy response recalled his reaction during a previous crisis involving a former security aide when Macron he had challenged his detractors to “come for him” if they dared.
This reaction was widely interpreted as too defensive, even among Macron’s supporters who fear the McKinsey affair is likely here to stay, especially in a country that prides itself on the excellence of its public services and has a long tradition of skepticism toward any private sector intervention in state affairs — even more so when it comes from an American company.
The government said it had spent €893 million in 2021 on consultancies, and justified the figure because of the pandemic crisis. It also said that France lagged behind many other European countries when it comes to using consultancies, but nonetheless said it would implement new measures for a more “reasonable and moderate” relation with such companies.
It also said an investigation was being led to ensure McKinsey paid the right amount of taxes in France, and denied any collusion between its consultants and Macron’s party.
But opponents are still using the affair to fuel an anti-Macron agenda ahead of the April 10 first-round vote in the presidential election, while conspiracy theories have also emerged about McKinsey’s influence.
Amid rising concern about the cost of living, particularly because of the war in Ukraine and its impact on energy prices, Macron has been attacked by both the far right and the radical left.
“With Emmanuel Macron, McKinsey, which cost you €1 billion last year for very vague missions, will continue to gorge itself on public money, not pay taxes and lie to the Senate!” National Rally candidate Marine Le Pen tweeted.
Xavier Bertrand, a prominent conservative leader who supports presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, said the use of consultancies during Macron’s tenure was a “state scandal,” and should call for judiciary inquiries — despite figures showing an important level of outsourcing to consultancies during former conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy’s mandate, when both Bertrand and Pécresse were ministers.
Far-right candidate Eric Zemmour suggested the contracts with McKinsey were a result of the high number of consultants who worked for Macron’s previous presidential campaign.
Macron’s camp fears the controversy may revive the image of Macron as a president of the rich. This cliché, which plays on the president’s past as a former Rothschild banker, become an epitome of everything that the Yellow Jackets movement fought against.
A government adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity said Macron had struggled to respond because of the crisis in Ukraine, but added that the McKinsey controversy was taken seriously.