French President Emmanuel Macron held a special security meeting, spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and convened his Cabinet for the first time Thursday _ all under a growing cloud of concern that his office is trying to control the press.
The government, appointed Wednesday, is a carefully calibrated balance of 22 prominent and unknown figures from the left and the right, half of them women. They arrived for their first meeting Thursday with smiles, posing for photographs on the front porch of the presidential Elysee Palace.
After the meeting, Macron talked by phone with Putin about possible cooperation on international issues, including the fight against terrorism. The Kremlin said in a statement that the two voiced readiness to develop “traditionally friendly” economic, political and cultural ties.
Macron held a defense council including the defense minister and the military chiefs to focus on security issues. The country remains under a state of emergency, and under threat from Islamic extremists, since deadly November 2015 attacks.
During the Cabinet meeting, Macron called on his ministers to have the “necessary discipline” and “solidarity” despite their sometimes stark political differences, government spokesman Christophe Castaner said.
In keeping with Macron’s independent centrist line and goal of reshaping French politics, his ministers include both Socialists and conservatives.
Castaner, a Socialist who joined Macron’s movement last year, said “our political background will not prevent us to work smartly for France.”
Meanwhile, tensions have arisen over Macron’s policies on media access, recalling similar conflicts over coverage of Donald Trump’s presidency in the U.S.
Some French political reporters said that Macron’s office called their media organization to designate specific journalists who will be able to cover Macron’s first trip outside Europe, scheduled in Mali on Friday.
In the past, French media would decide themselves who to send on presidential trips.
The president’s staff told some media organizations they were trying to give access to journalists with backgrounds covering the topic or theme of a visit, rather than only to political correspondents.
Castaner answered that he wasn’t aware of this specific issue but tried to reassure reporters, explaining there’s a need to limit the number of journalists during certain visits.
“As you’ve seen during the campaign, the presence of 50 journalists and a dozen (television) cameras can affect direct dialogue and discussions that the president has with the French,” he said. “It’s not about controlling. It’s not about imposing anything.”
Castaner said he and the president are committed to letting journalists do their jobs.
“I’m taking note of your concerns and I will pass them on,” he said.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said the actions of Macron’s young presidency were a “concerning signal to the press” and “could be used as a way of putting pressure on the media.”
Christophe Deloire, the secretary general of the organization, said, “it’s not the Elysee’s job to select journalists during official trips.”
“To limit the number of journalists at an event doesn’t mean you get to pick who is allowed to cover the president’s trips. If that were to happen, it would be unwarranted political interference,” Deloire said.
France is ranked 39th in the 2017 world press freedom index by the group.
More than 20 French media organizations signed an open letter to Macron on Thursday night to express their concerns.
“In no case the Elysee must decide those of us who are entitled or not to cover a visit, whatever the theme is,” the letter stated.
“It is not the president of the Republic or his services who decide…the internal functioning of the media organizations, their coverage choices and their approach,” it said.
Also Thursday, for the first time in years, the Elysee courtyard was closed to media following the Cabinet meeting. Castaner said the closure wasn’t aimed at controlling the government’s image but rather was a one-time event because the ministers needed to take an official photograph.
He said the press would be allowed to attend the end of future Cabinet meetings and question ministers in the Elysee courtyard starting next week.
Thursday’s meeting was largely about getting to know each other. The government is led by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, a conservative. The most senior Cabinet job, interior minister, went to Gerard Collomb, 69, the long-time Socialist mayor of Lyon who played a key role in Macron’s presidential bid.
The armed forces are now led by centrist, pro-European Sylvie Goulard, 52. Jean-Yves Le Drian, 69, the former defense minister, stays on in Macron’s new government as foreign minister and Europe minister.