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As Macron extends his dominance, French politicians abandon ship

With France's two main establishment parties still in turmoil after their crushing defeat by Emmanuel Macron last year, many of the losing candidates are looking for fresh challenges.

[PARIS] At the beginning of last year, Arnaud Montebourg was running for the presidency of France. Now he sells honey.

The former industry minister under President Francois Hollande isn't alone in seeking a future outside politics. With France's two main establishment parties still in turmoil after their crushing defeat by Emmanuel Macron last year, many of the losing candidates are looking for fresh challenges.

That's a new development for a country that has traditionally cosseted its political class.

For Mr Montebourg, who sacked by Mr Hollande in 2014 for criticising the government's deficit reduction, then 18 months later sought and failed to win the Socialist nomination to contest the presidential election, beekeeping is just an alternative form of public service.

"It's another way to serve society," Mr Montebourg, 55, said in an interview with Ouest France. "Certainly more modest, but much more concrete."

His business - called "Bleu, Blanc, Ruche," or "Blue, White, Beehive" - pays above-market prices to French-based honey producers in return for a commitment to help repopulate France's declining bee population.

For decades, politicians in France didn't take voters' rejection for an answer, they simply waited it out inside the system, typically employed by their party, entering local politics or joining the ranks of senior civil servants. It took Socialist Francois Mitterrand 16 years and three campaigns before he was elected president in 1981. Ditto conservative Jacques Chirac.

That mold was broken last year when Mr Macron, little known and claiming not to be a professional politician, swept all before him to take the presidency at his first attempt. His newly created party engulfed the National Assembly, its ranks filled with the likes of entrepreneurs and doctors drawn from civil society.

Mr Macron answered a desire in France for "degagisme," or kicking out the old and renewal of a political class that proved unable to address deep-seated woes such as mass unemployment and a sense of insecurity, according to Jean Garrigues, a political historian at Orleans University.

"The model of being a career politician, which was a very French thing, has been fraying for some years now," Mr Garrigues said in a phone interview. "The elections in 2017 were simply a catalyst, as parties and politicians were confronted with the demand for new ideas and solutions as well as new representatives."

The impact is still rippling through French politics.

Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, 45, twice appointed a minister under President Nicolas Sarkozy and who finished fourth in last year's centre-right primary behind Francois Fillon, officially resigns as an elected member of the opposition at Paris city hall council this week. She's joining technology company Capgemini SE in New York to work on cybersecurity.

"I passionately love politics," she told Le Parisien daily in July. "But frankly, what I see these days in political circles doesn't tempt me."

What Mr Garrigues called the "moralising of French politics" has taken its toll on parties' ability to support leading members during their time in the wilderness, a practice employed since the end of the 19th century. Neither will voters tolerate financial impropriety these days.

Francois Fillon, 64, who served as Mr Sarkozy's prime minister, was the losing candidate of the centre-right Republicans after a campaign marred by a financing scandal. He is now senior partner at money managers Tikehau Capital.

Even those who stayed on in politics have struck out in new directions.

Marine Le Pen, who lost the run-off to Mr Macron, has changed the name of her National Front party to National Rally in an attempt to get rid of the last vestiges of her father who founded it. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist candidate who finished a humiliating fifth, is trying to create his own movement, Generation.s.

Manuel Valls, a former prime minister, is eyeing his next step in politics, but not in France: He's considering running as mayor of Barcelona, the Spanish city where he was born before his family moved to France.

As for Mr Hollande, who didn't even run for re-election in the face of humiliating polls, he's busy promoting a book about his time at the Elysee Palace. It's been a surprise hit, and his roadshow has been attracting long queues around France over the summer.

Some are already asking him to consider a comeback at the next presidential election, in 2022.

"Today, I'm a candidate for nothing and I don't position myself with regards to such a prospect," he said in an interview with France Info radio on Monday. So that's a maybe.


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