France’s prime minister: will he stay or go?

When French president Emmanuel Macron announced on Sunday that he was embarking on a “new path” to rescue the economy from the coronavirus crisis, the millions watching his televised speech to the nation were left wondering whether he also planned to install a new prime minister.

With less than two years to go before the next presidential election, there has been feverish speculation among politicians and commentators in Paris about the fate of Edouard Philippe.

He has served Mr Macron loyally as prime minister since the start of his mandate in 2017. Part of his beard turned dramatically white as one crisis followed another. But to cast aside a prime minister would be in keeping with the traditions of France’s fifth republic: presidents routinely dump their heads of government to mark a new political direction. 

Mr Philippe, furthermore, has fuelled the rumours that he might be fired or even resign by standing as a candidate for mayor in his home town of Le Havre. He is in the lead after the first round of the local elections, and has promised, if he wins, to take up his mayoral post (which will be filled by a deputy in the meantime) as soon as he stops being prime minister.

Edouard Philippe is running for mayor of his home town of Le Havre © Lou Benoist/AFP/Getty

“If he [Macron] thinks someone else would be more useful as prime minister, I will in complete loyalty respect his choice,” he told the Paris Normandie newspaper in an interview. “If the voters choose me, I will return to Le Havre — at the latest in May 2022, but perhaps a lot sooner.”

On the face of it, replacing his prime minister is a politically logical move for Mr Macron. Mr Philippe was a politician of the centre-right before leading this government. He has never been a member of La République en Marche (LREM), the “neither right nor left” political party Mr Macron formed before running successfully for president in 2017. 

What is more, the Covid-19 pandemic and the deep economic recession caused by a two-month lockdown has forced the government into adopting policies that would once have seemed radically socialist. 

The French state has already deployed €136bn on measures to stave off business bankruptcies and mass unemployment. The deficit is expected to rise from 3 per cent of gross domestic product in 2019 to more than 11 per cent of GDP this year, while public sector debt will jump by 20 percentage points to more than 120 per cent of GDP. 

“You can’t be more socialist than that,” said Dominique Reynié, a politics professor at Sciences Po. “Even Keynes would be shocked.” 

Such measures, however, are similar to those adopted by other governments around the world to deal with the gravest economic crisis in a generation. They do not necessarily mean that Mr Macron — or Mr Philippe — are deviating from their original aim of modernising France and reforming its economy.

“We’re now moving from dealing with the medical crisis to dealing with the economic crisis,” said one official who works with Mr Macron and asked to remain anonymous. “On the one hand the president is taking what he calls a new path, but on the other hand he wants continuity and is not going to abandon his reforms.”

Mr Macron is expected to reshuffle his government and announce fuller details of his economic plans in early July, after the second round of the local elections on June 28. Some ministers — such as Christophe Castaner, the interior minister who has lost the confidence of the police — are almost certain to be replaced. 

But the “new path” for the economy may not be as novel as advertised. 

In his speech on Sunday, in which he largely ended the country’s coronavirus confinement, Mr Macron echoed earlier policy statements when he ruled out raising taxes and said the only way to build a sustainable economy was to work harder and produce more. The pension reform plan that triggered mass trade union protests may be revised or renegotiated, but is unlikely to be dropped completely. 

“I’m not certain there is really a ‘new path’,” said Nicolas Bouzou, economist at Asterès, a consultancy. “He may just be doing marketing. What he’s saying is not out of line with what he’s done since the start of his five-year mandate . . . In the end, it’s not clear that we are looking at a major turning point.”

The president is searching for a ‘new path’, as France’s economy begins to recover from the coronavirus pandemic © Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty

Mr Macron’s four watchwords for the economy — “strong, ecological, sovereign and solidaire [showing solidarity]” — have all been foreshadowed in previous laws and speeches. By “sovereign”, for example, Mr Macron means investing in high-tech industries in France and the EU to avoid excessive dependency on China or the US — a policy he has championed since before the pandemic. 

If Mr Macron wants to continue with his economic reforms, he may therefore decide after all that Mr Philippe remains the best prime minister to carry out the task. 

And there are three other reasons for the president to hesitate to drop him. First, Mr Philippe’s popularity, unlike Mr Macron’s, has increased sharply during the Covid-19 pandemic and lent credibility to the administration. In an Ifop-Fiducial poll in early June, the prime minister and the president recorded approval ratings of 53 per cent and 40 per cent respectively.

Second, if Mr Philippe wins Le Havre and leaves the central government, he could become a formidable rival candidate for the presidency when Mr Macron is seeking re-election in 2022.

The final problem, said Mr Bouzou, is that there is no obvious alternative: “One doesn’t know who could replace him.”