France’s unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron, is trying to rebrand his image and reclaim the limelight after sacking a prime minister who was beginning to outshine him.
He has named a more biddable prime minister, former civil servant Jean Castex, to replace Édouard Philippe. Like his predecessor, the new prime minister is from the centre-Right of French politics. He resigned as mayor of the small southern town of Prades to serve under the centrist president.
Mr Philippe is now a target of a judicial inquiry into claims of government misconduct over the handling of the coronavirus crisis, opened as he handed over to Mr Castex. Olivier Véran, the health minister, and his predecessor Agnès Buzyn, are also under investigation. They risk two years in prison and a €30,000 (£27,000) fine if convicted of failing to take action to combat a public danger.
However, Mr Philippe won public plaudits for his handling of the crisis. His approval ratings surged while Mr Macron’s fell as critics blamed him for a shortage of face-masks and tests.
It was a reversal of the traditional roles of president and prime minister in France. Prime ministers are supposed to take the heat for the president, not the other way round. They are dispensable, which is why the post is known as “the fuse”. French prime ministers rarely last a full presidential term.
Mr Macron has to take centre-stage to win back sceptical voters. The newspaper Le Monde summed up his strategy by saying: “He intends to be the only boss.” Mr Castex, in his first interview after being appointed on Friday, said: “I’m not here for the limelight. I’m here for results."
But Mr Macron is taking a gamble by ousting Mr Philippe, who was the most popular member of his team. A poll on Thursday showed that 57 per cent of the French wanted him to stay. The former prime minister, who was elected mayor of the Normandy port of Le Havre last weekend, may now launch his own presidential bid as a moderate conservative.
If his successor is seen merely as a glorified chief of the presidential staff, it may be difficult for Mr Macron to deflect blame on to him for whatever goes wrong during the remaining two years of his presidency. He has been challenged by long-running strikes and protests over his business-friendly reforms, and the coronavirus crisis is set to wipe away the benefits of higher employment, with France now facing thousands of job losses.
Christian Jacob, leader of the conservative Republicans, the opposition party Mr Castex quit to assume his new post, said: “After the [coronavirus] crisis, we have a president incapable of setting a course who has chosen a nonentity as prime minister, who will conduct business in the manner of a company that’s going to shut down”.
Thierry Mandon, a former aide of Mr Macron’s predecessor, the Socialist François Hollande, said: “Without pre-judging the qualities of the new prime minister, we may ask ourselves if the post has not just been abolished de facto.”
Mr Macron will need conservative support to win re-election in 2022, and the new government, to be announced by Wednesday, is likely to include both Right-and Left-wingers. His own centrist party, La République En Marche, lacks high-profile figures. The leader of its group in the Senate said the president was considering offering government posts to a former conservative minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, and a former Socialist prime minister, Bernard Cazeneuve.
Many members of government are likely to be replaced, including Christophe Castaner, the interior minister, criticised for failing to quell yellow-vest anti-government protests in 2018 and 2019.