Outgoing French prime minister Edouard Philippe applauds his successor Jean Castex during the official handover ceremony at Hôtel de Matignon in Paris on Friday
Outgoing French prime minister Edouard Philippe applauds his successor, Jean Castex, during the official handover ceremony at Hôtel de Matignon in Paris on Friday © Charles Platiau/Reuters

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France’s Emmanuel Macron has named low-key bureaucrat Jean Castex as his new prime minister in a bid to revive his presidency before the 2022 elections and launch an economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Castex, who was appointed in April by Mr Macron to organise France’s exit from its coronavirus lockdown, is expected to have a lower political profile than his predecessor, the increasingly popular Edouard Philippe, who helped the president implement his ambitious economic reform programme after his election in 2017.

Mr Philippe handed over what he called the “heavy burden” of the premiership to Mr Castex at a ceremony at the prime minister’s office in the Hôtel de Matignon on Friday evening. In his slight southern twang, Mr Castex said the coronavirus pandemic was not finished while the economic and social crisis it had provoked was just beginning.

“We must more than ever unite the nation to combat this crisis that is under way,” he said. 

One senior French official described the 55-year-old Mr Castex as the ideal “Macronian” choice, because he was both a respected high-level civil servant with government experience and an elected centre-right mayor of the small town of Prades in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

“He knows the arcane workings of Paris, but is also rooted locally in the countryside,” the official said. “He’s someone who comes from the right, but is a ‘social Gaullist’.” The departing Mr Philippe is also from the centre-right of French politics.

Outgoing French PM had garnered significant popularity for his handling of pandemic

Mr Macron, who won the presidency on a liberal political platform he said was “neither right nor left”, is eager to relaunch his mandate ahead of the next presidential and legislative elections in 2022.

His choice of the low-profile and hardworking Mr Castex — once described by Mr Philippe as “formidably efficient” and likened by another colleague to a multipurpose “Swiss army knife” — suggests Mr Macron wants to take centre-stage himself in managing the recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

The president’s first three years in office have been marked by sometimes contentious economic reforms, the gilets jaunes anti-government protests and the coronavirus pandemic that has killed almost 30,000 people in France and triggered a deep recession.

“We need to lay out a new path,” Mr Macron said in an interview with French regional newspapers published on Friday morning, adding that he wanted a “reinvention of aims and a method for rebuilding the country” after the Covid-19 crisis. 

He also said he would press on with the reform of France’s costly and complex pension system, despite the fact that the plans triggered public sector transport strikes and trade union protests last year. “Should we consign the pension reform to the dustbin?” Mr Macron asked. “No, that would be a mistake.”

Mr Philippe, although not a member of Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party, has been an effective and loyal head of government since the president came to power, and his popularity has risen during the coronavirus crisis. 

But it is normal in the fifth republic for French presidents to ditch their prime ministers to mark a new start, and Mr Philippe took out an insurance policy on his political future by winning a local election to be chosen as mayor of his home town of Le Havre last weekend. 

As a politician of the centre-right, Mr Philippe could use Le Havre as a base for his own presidential bid in the future, but officials said he would continue to co-operate with Mr Macron in the near future and would not pose a threat in 2022.

Mr Philippe is expected instead to have a role in rebuilding the governing alliance for Mr Macron in the French parliament.

Mr Macron’s newly formed party won a clear majority in the National Assembly the month after he became president in 2017, but it has struggled to put down roots in the provinces and was crushed by the traditional parties of left and right and by the greens in this year’s local elections.

Disaffected environmentalists and former Socialists have also abandoned the party and formed their own groups in parliament, although the support of François Bayrou’s centrist MoDem party has ensured that the government has retained its majority in the assembly.

Mr Macron paid tribute to his prime minister in his latest interview. “For three years by my side he has done a remarkable job with successive governments and we have carried out some important reforms. We have a relationship of trust,” said Mr Macron.

But he added: “I will have to make choices to take the new road. There are new aims of independence, reconstruction and reconciliation . . . Behind that, there will be a new team.” A new French cabinet will be announced within days.

Edouard Philippe — the PM whose popularity overshadowed that of the president

The Covid-19 crisis played to Edouard Philippe’s strengths — and while his approval ratings rose, those of his boss, President Emmanuel Macron, declined.

Half of the French surveyed by Ifop declared they had a good opinion of the 49-year-old politician, who was recently re-elected mayor of the northern port city of Le Havre — far ahead of the unpopular Mr Macron, who is perceived as out of touch. 

“Throughout the pandemic, Philippe was seen as the mirror-image of Emmanuel Macron . . . he has managed to separate his own popularity from that of the government and policies he himself was leading,” said Chloé Morin, an analyst at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès think-tank.

While in office, Mr Philippe enacted a largely pro-business agenda, including the revamp of the wealth tax and reforms making it easier for employers to hire and fire workers.

A protégé of former centre-right prime minister Alain Juppé, he maintained a level of independence from the president by declining to join Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party, demurring that he was a “man of the right”. 

Often, he was more concerned with budgetary discipline than his boss. This led to tensions between them during the gilets jaunes movement when fed-up French working-class people revolted against a proposed carbon tax and a reduction in speed limits pushed by Mr Philippe. Divergences also arose during a strike movement earlier this year against pension reforms.

“Basically, he has a good record on the economy but . . . the pension reform was meant to be that big one and it was held up by the pandemic,” said Nicolas Bouzou, head of Asterès, an economic research centre.

Now the question is whether Mr Philippe will use Le Havre, his industrialised Normandy power base, to nurture loftier political ambitions at some point in the future, if not in 2022. 

“Popularity always brings ideas and no matter what, he does have options,” said Ms Morin.

David Keohane and Leila Abboud in Paris

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