Emmanuel Macron has resorted to a tried and tested technique of French leaders jettisoning their prime ministers to reboot a flagging presidency. On Friday he ditched Edouard Philippe, who had led the government competently for three years, steering it through violent street protests and the coronavirus crisis and implementing an ambitious set of reforms.
Presidencies consist of phases that may legitimately require different personnel. Events can intervene and demand a change of direction and of style. A new face can convey a sense of renewal. Mr Macron is following a Fifth Republic tradition. The trouble is it has seldom, if ever, worked. In Mr Macron’s case, it could even backfire by accentuating the very perception that makes him so unpopular: that he wants to run the country all by himself.
Mr Philippe was replaced by Jean Castex, a man with a strikingly similar background minus the popularity that was putting the president in the shade. Out goes a moderate conservative who was a mayor from Normandy but never before a minister. In comes another moderate conservative, without ministerial experience, who is a mayor from Gascony. Mr Philippe had at least been a member of parliament. Mr Castex, who helped with France’s exit from lockdown, is an experienced civil servant, highly admired by France’s technocracy but unknown to the general public. Mr Macron has appointed a managing director to implement his decisions in the final two years of his term. It is the president alone who will take the credit or the blame.
Arguably with this reshuffle Mr Macron is resolving an inherent tension in the French constitution between two heads of the executive. The set-up was designed for Charles de Gaulle, who was preoccupied with France’s place in the world and left domestic matters to his premier. More recently, presidents have exercised executive power over all areas, none more so than the hyperactive Nicolas Sarkozy who scoffed at his predecessors as “idle kings”. Mr Macron has taken the trend to its logical conclusion, by assuming the role of the prime minister himself.
But an omnipotent president, together with a weak parliament, hardly meets the standards of a 21st century liberal democracy let alone the separation of powers, a doctrine invented in France, after all. And Mr Macron cannot avoid the paradox that has weakened faith in contemporary democracy: the French want a strong leader but not one who arrogates all power to himself.
Mr Macron may feel the next presidential election is destined to end in a repeat duel with the far-right leader Marine Le Pen which he cannot possibly lose. He may be right. Personalisation of power makes sense when limbering up for this fight. He still has the most coherent agenda for modernising France and his strategic worldview is fast gaining traction in Europe.
But his vulnerability is the fracturing of his vote in the first round and the emergence of a competitor on the centre-right, even if Mr Philippe looks set to stay loyal for now. The greens now have real momentum and are challenging Mr Macron’s record on the environment and climate change. Part of their appeal is a different way of doing politics: deliberation, devolution, community engagement. President Macron is on a different wavelength.
France is heading into a severe recession and possibly mass unemployment. Political affiliations, which Mr Macron stirred up in 2017, are still very fluid. And now without a political prime minister to shield him, he is totally exposed.
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