Clima, Emmanuel Macron e Edouard Philippe arrivano all'Eliseo

Is Macron’s Appointment of a New Prime Minister the Right Move?

French President Emmanuel Macron shook up his government on Friday, July 3 in the first of what is likely to be many changes in Parisian politics. After former Prime Minister Édouard Philippe tendered his resignation Friday morning, Macron appointed Jean Castex, a civil servant who has led France’s COVID-19 reopening efforts, as France 24 reported.

Getting Rid of Icarus

Philippe’s departure was unexpected because by every metric his popularity among French voters had been surging. In truth, it may have been an Icarus situation whereby Philippe gained too much popularity too quickly and thus caused Macron to feel threatened. In Paris, there can be only one true leader and since taking office, Macron has worked to establish France as a major player in international politics.

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, according to the New York Times. “He doesn’t want to be the president of Edouard Philippe’s government.”

Why Did Macron Make His Decision?

The power wielded by Macron is his and his alone, which likely factored into his decision-making in releasing Philippe. The former premier served since May 2017 and recently won the mayoral election in his hometown of Le Havre. 

In an interview Thursday, Macron said he intends to forge a “new path” in order to “reinvent” France during his remaining time in office. 

“I will have choices to make to lead the new way,” Mr. Macron said, adding “there will be a new team.”

What he actually means is that it is time for him to reignite the Republic on the Move (LREM) party that suffered heavy losses at the polls last week. The Greens party claimed major victories in historically conservative and socialist cities including Lyon, Bordeaux, and Strasbourg, and helped fend off the LREM from controlling Paris and Marseille.

A Bad Night for Elections

If the local elections were a referendum on Macron’s tenure, he failed miserably. With The Greens now wielding more control, the president’s government is now pressured to alter course to accommodate a new voter sentiment by focusing on environmental issues. 

Phillippe, one of the few candidates Macron could have considered a personal victory, was promptly sacked as punishment. The former prime minister enjoyed a 58% approval rating, 20 points more than Macron, Deutsche Welle reported. His popularity is high enough that some observers question whether he could challenge Macron in 2022 for president.

Regardless of whether Philippe decides to seek higher office—and it’s clear the public support is there—Macron faces indisputable challenges for the remainder of his term. Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Macron was tasked with calming economic anxiety that led to the Yellow Jacket protests. Those concerns have not dissipated, only been placed on pause while the world focuses on conquering COVID-19.

If anything, the virus has exacerbated the underlying economic dissatisfaction. The president has two years to develop a solution, to prove to voters he is still the right leader for France. This is where Castex comes into the equation.

Another Conservative

Castex is an intriguing choice to fill the office because on paper, he strongly resembles Philippe. Like his predecessor, Castex is a a conservative and former member of the Republicans party. If Macron learned anything from The Greens election sweep last week, it was not that he should incorporate liberal politicians into his government. 

Instead, Macron is content with another conservative while somehow hoping for different results. The difference between the two is that Castex is more willing to open the pocket book and spend what needs to be spent to accomplish Macron’s economic goals, as the New York Times reported.

“People like Edouard Philippe are very attached to balanced budgets,” said Gerald Grunberg, professor emeritus of political science at Sciences Po university. “Macron is not like that.”

‘I’m Here Seeking Results’

Castex is also a relative unknown among Parisian politics despite an elite background. He served in former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government, but aside from that, he is predominantly associated with ushering France out of the COVID-19 crisis, POLITICO reported.

“I’m not here seeking the spotlight, I’m here seeking results,” Castex said in his first interview after taking over. “Until today I wasn’t a national politician.”

In Castex, Macron has a willing deputy to do his bidding without question, to carry out his policies without interference and importantly, without taking credit. In appointing Castex, Macron resisted appointing a leftist prime minister or a woman, both of which could have steered Paris in another direction.

Instead, Macron is doubling down with another right-wing premier while exiling a massively popular, experienced political figure who could mount a campaign of his own in 2022. However, the president’s strategy should become clearer in the coming week as he fills other key cabinet positions.

On the surface, Castex looks like a continuation of Philippe and not at all like the “reinvention” Macron promised. If Castex can successfully help Macron rebuild France’s economy and reforge relations with cities lost in the recent local elections, then perhaps the choice will turn out to have been an effective one.