Macron replaces France’s prime minister in bid to reinvigorate his government

By Adam Nossiter and Aurelien Breeden

President Emmanuel Macron shuffled prime ministers on Friday, removing the most popular member of his government and a potential rival in a bid to get a fresh start in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak that has hit France hard.

Macron traded in his prime minister of three years, Édouard Philippe, for a relatively unknown technocrat, Jean Castex, who has helped guide France out of the health emergency.

But the president has taken a chance in distancing himself from Philippe: The outgoing prime minister is the only French political leader to emerge from the health crisis with sharply enhanced credibility. By pushing out Philippe, Macron is testing the adage that, in politics, it is better to keep one’s rivals close at hand.

Macron made the move in the face of an economic emergency brought on by the virus, by his own tenuous public support and by a surge in popularity for Green parties in local voting last Sunday.

But Castex is not an environmentalist nor a leftist, suggesting Macron was not cowed by the election results nor by demands that he change his pro-business stance. The contemptuous reactions of French Greens and Socialists to Friday’s news suggested as much.

By appointing Castex, the low-profile mayor of a modest town in the French Pyrenees who has shaped France’s so far successful strategy to ease lockdown restrictions, Macron is signaling that he is looking ahead. In doing so he is butting up against public opinion, though, as a new poll revealed this week that nearly 60% of the French wanted Philippe to stay in his post.

That in itself was a problem for Philippe, as was his recent appearance on the cover of Paris Match as France’s real strongman.

Macron “is very self-confident, he doesn’t want to be put in the shade by anybody,” said Gerald Grunberg, an emeritus political scientist at Sciences Po university. “He doesn’t want to be the president of Edouard Philippe’s government.”

Replacing prime ministers, like firing managers in baseball, is a well-established tradition for modern French presidents looking to create new energy. Macron, 42, has two years to go in a rocky five-year term that has been marked by social unrest, some economic progress and, now, a shaky business outlook. GDP is expected to drop 11% to 13% this year.

For weeks, speculation about the fate of Philippe — who served an unusually long spell for a French prime minister — had swirled in the news media and in political circles.

Macron had been expected to reshape his Cabinet after the coronavirus dealt a heavy blow to France, hoping to give his government a fresh mandate in the last stretch of a five-year term that ends in 2022.

“There had to be a new signal, a new conquest of the French, because we’ve lost so many,” said Patrick Vignal, a parliamentary deputy in Macron’s party from southern France. “So Emmanuel Macron was right to turn tables and name a new prime minister.”

Grunberg noted that polls suggested Philippe could be the only political figure with enough standing to take on Macron in two years. Not a single other serious potential challenger has emerged on either the right or the left.

Yet by the telling of the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency, the parting was cordial, and the choice of Castex a natural one because he was seen as transcending the right-left divide, an intense focus of Macron.

Castex, 55, is a graduate of the same elite finishing school for technocrats, the ENA, or National Management School, as both Macron and Philippe. Yet Macron’s supporters on Friday portrayed Castex as a son of the soil.

“Jean Castex represents the Old World, a rural elected official who has had to face real problems,” Vignal said. “He’s a graduate of ENA, sure, but he’s got his feet in the muck, and his head in the stars.”

Later on Friday, the Élysée announced that Philippe, who was reelected mayor of Le Havre last weekend, would be given a new role in helping shape Macron’s Republic on the Move political movement.

The reshuffle came the same day that French prosecutors announced that Philippe was one of three current or former officials under investigation for possible mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. But the process is in a very preliminary stage and might not lead to formal charges or trial.

France is still dealing with the aftermath of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which has led to nearly 30,000 deaths in the country. France fared worse than Germany in deaths and cases, but considerably better than its northern and southern neighbors, including Britain.

The shake-up was all the more expected after a strong showing by Green parties in France’s municipal elections last week, which intensified pressure on Macron to change his governing team. Macron’s party failed to field serious candidates in any of the major cities, a sign of its grassroots weakness, and the Greens took Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg.

Unlike many of its European neighbors, France has a system of government in which the president, elected directly by the French people, is the head of the executive branch and is usually the main policy driver. The prime minister and Cabinet are accountable to Parliament, but are appointed by the president and responsible for day-to-day governing.

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