PARIS — For French presidents, appointing a new prime minister is like giving a house a fresh coat of paint after a long winter.
Every president since the end of World War II, except Nicolas Sarkozy, has changed prime ministers after a big crisis in a bid to start afresh. While current Prime Minister Edouard Philippe survived both the Yellow Jackets and pension-reform crises, his time as President Emmanuel Macron’s head of government may soon be up.
Speculation over Philippe’s fate reached a fever pitch in recent weeks with leaks in the French press about reported conflicts with Macron over how to handle the coronavirus lockdown. But half a dozen French officials interviewed by POLITICO say any decision is not just about whether the president wants a fresh face. It’s more about the political priorities Macron wants to set for the last two years of his first term, with an eye on the 2022 presidential election.
“Matignon is not a beauty contest,” said an adviser to Macron, referring to the mansion that houses the prime minister’s office in a chic neighborhood of the Left Bank in Paris. “The real question is what political project the president has in mind for the upcoming period after the health crisis.”
When the coronavirus crisis hit, Macron had to suspend some of his fundamental reforms, but now, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly over in France, he is preparing to reinvent his political program for the two years left in his mandate — and Philippe may be the highest-profile casualty.
Previously a local politician who was a lieutenant to conservative heavyweight Alain Juppé, Philippe did not vote for Macron in the first round of the presidential election that brought him to power. But he was recruited by the new president, whose background was on the center left, as part of his plan to build a hybrid movement that went beyond traditional political divides.
Unlike many previous prime ministers, Philippe has largely steered clear of politicking. He is perceived as a sober technocrat, with a caustic sense of humor and an attachment to fiscal rigor, who eschews Macron’s lyricism in favor of more pragmatic speeches — in many ways the typical high-level public servant France’s elite schools produce to populate the high offices of state.
Philippe has regularly dismissed rumors of his impending departure, most recently during a press conference in early May presenting the plan for exiting lockdown.
“Over the past three years … I have always felt there has been much trust and fluidity in our relationship in a way that has rarely occurred before. It’s still the case and I hope it will always be the case and I think it will always be the case,” Philippe said.
His team both repeatedly denies there being any conflict between the two men and phlegmatically accepts that the prime minister, as an appointee, “serves at the pleasure of the president.”
“The prime minister will stay in Matignon as long as he has the trust of the president, the support of the majority and he is comfortable doing what he does in Matignon,” said an adviser to Philippe.
Herein lies part of the answer to a riddle only Macron can solve.
For his upcoming political shift, Macron is weighing whether a center-left and environmental turn or an attempt at uniting the right would be the best tactical choice to cope with the dire socioeconomic consequences of the pandemic, as well as positioning himself favorably if he decides to run for reelection in 2022.
He has sent signals in both directions since the coronavirus outbreak. First, he threw fiscal orthodoxy and reforms out the window and pumped money into the economy, nationalizing salaries to counter the economic consequences of the virus. But he’s also wooed the populist public through calls and text messages to some of their leading figures.
Philippe’s fate will depend not only on Macron’s political choices but also whether he opts for change to give his new program more democratic legitimacy by calling early parliamentary elections, a referendum or conducting an updated version of the so-called grand debate that helped him turn the page after the Yellow Jackets protests.
“There are some who are pushing the president to reshuffle the government between June 28 and July 14″ — Anonymous Macron adviser
“I think the president himself doesn’t know yet,” Macron’s adviser said.
To help him decide, he is consulting a wide array of people, among whom are economists, intellectuals and political heavyweights including Sarkozy, the presidents of the two chambers of parliament and former Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement.
The timing too is uncertain. He could pull the trigger either at the beginning of summer — with a possible big speech around July 14 — or in the fall, during what the French refer to as la rentrée, when schools and businesses reopen after the long summer hiatus.
“There are some who are pushing the president to reshuffle the government between June 28 and July 14. It’s a timeframe that could be appropriate if the president manages to sketch out his project, it means you could have a first window of opportunity, but the president could also consider that that’s premature and he should wait for the fall,” Macron’s adviser said.
But don’t count Philippe out just yet.
The prime minister has enjoyed slightly higher approval ratings than Macron — French citizens seemingly appreciate his steadiness and factual responses during press conferences at various points of the crisis.
He is also expected to win reelection as mayor of the northern city of Le Havre at the end of June, despite having overseen unpopular government policies like the pension reform. However, if he loses, even his own camp says they “have a hard time imagining him staying in Matignon.”
And the latest splintering in parliament, when a handful of MPs from Macron’s La République En Marche who were politically close to Philippe left to form their own group, is being closely watched as a potential power play. Over recent weeks, some LREM MPs have attacked Philippe anonymously in the French press, dredging up his decision to limit the speed limit to 80km per hour, something widely blamed for the Yellow Jackets protests.
If not him, then who?
Philippe is strengthened by the dearth of alternatives.
“The strength of Edouard Philippe is that he controls his majority well and that there isn’t one other obvious candidate for the post,” said Jean-Daniel Lévy, head of the political and polling department at Harris Interactive.
While there is no obvious front-runner, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian is mentioned as a possible option at every big crisis, though officials close to him have consistently said he is not interested. Two other current ministers have been more bullish about campaigning for the job.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who unsuccessfully ran for president, has been omnipresent in the media, well beyond what is needed to explain the government’s economic recovery plan. Budget Minister Gérald Darmanin, who is close to Philippe, gave a front-page interview to the Le Journal du Dimanche, detailing a grassroots right-wing program and affirming that he wants to “weigh” in on the political debate, a move widely interpreted as a bid for the PM’s position.
Macron, ever the disrupter, could also throw a curveball. He could recruit someone from the business world or civil society, though he might be put off by such a choice after sour experiences with the likes of Nicolas Hulot, a famous environmental activist who served as his environment minister but quit in protest at the president’s policies.
Macron may also go where only one French president has gone before and appoint a woman to the post, although there has been no sign of any particular female candidate emerging.
Whatever Macron ends up deciding about Philippe and his own political priorities, some think he can still reclaim center-left voters who were a large part of his base in his presidential triumph in 2017 but have gradually been replaced by center-right supporters as Macron pursued policies widely perceived as tilting to the right.
“He fundamentally modified his electorate between 2017 and 2019, I don’t see why he couldn’t fundamentally modify his electorate again between 2019 and 2022,” Lévy said.