OPINION: What Macron can do to turn the tide, but there’s a risk

OPINION: What Macron can do to turn the tide, but there's a risk
Photo: AFP
After announcing his long-awaited and nightmarish cabinet reshuffle the under-pressure French president Emmanuel Macron needs a second wind. He should take a step back to allow the more popular Edouard Philippe to become a traditional Gaullist Prime Minister, argues veteran France correspondent John Lichfield. Even if there are risks.

The 21st century French cabinet reshuffle is a nightmare – like solving a Rubik’s Cube while playing three-dimensional chess.

Reshuffles have never been easy but consider the calculations required in the furious anti-political climate and media glare of 2018.

The new team has to be gender-balanced. It has to reflect the government’s competing factions.

It has to be split fairly between career politicians and personalities lassooed from the “real world”. The potential ministers have to be frisked, and frisked again, for scandals-in-waiting.

The reshuffle negotiations completed today – President Emmanuel Macron’s first – were the most protracted in the 60 year history of the Fifth Republic.  It is two weeks since the interior minister, Gérard Collomb, resigned giving President Macron and his Prime Minister Edouard Philippe an opportunity to reboot their unpopular government.

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The results in the end are limited – comparatively few changes, no spectacular recruits on the political transfer market and no ritual resignation of the Philippe government to make way for a “Philippe II”.

Despite his poor poll ratings (19 per cent in one recent survey, 29 per cent in another), the political obituaries for President Macron in the right-wing UK press are premature. He does, however, need to find a second wind.

This reshuffle may give him one – not because of the qualities of his new ministers but because of the impatience and ambition of an old one, the Prime Minister, Mr Philippe.

An additional source of complexity in this remaniement (reshuffle) was a polite arm-wrestling contest between President and Prime Minister. 

Edouard Philippe did not get all that he wanted. A close Macron ally, the ex-Socialist Christopher Castaner, took the high-profile position of interior minister, not a Philippe nominee from the centre-right.

Philippe is 47 – young for a French Prime Minister but seven years older than Macron.

As the former mayor of Le Havre, he has more experience of grass-roots politics than the President. He is also more popular. He was given a 51 per cent approval rating in one poll at the weekend.

'He should now withdraw a little and allow Edouard Philippe to become a true Gaullist Prime Minister'

The tall, bearded Phlippe – he resembles a bicycling monarch from a north European state – has been a discreet figure as PM. He now seems to be taking advantage of Macron’s struggles to emerge as an independent player in his own right.

That does not necessarily mean a “split” – yet. Philippe said last week that it would be impossible to insert “the start of the beginning of a piece of a cigarette paper” between himself and his boss.

Talk of Philippe returning to his own centre-right political family to challenge the centrist Macron for the presidency in 2022 is premature. It is not entirely impossible.

If Macron is clever, he will use Philippe’s energy and ambition to his own advantage. In the two-headed system of government invented by Charles de Gaulle in the late 1950s, the President of the Republic was supposed to be the wise, final arbiter of policy, aloof from the day to day irritations and humiliations of power.

The Prime Minister became a kind of shock-absorber, a whipping boy, who could be replaced when “the people” revolted.

Nicolas Sarkozy destroyed that system in 2007-12, acting as his own Prime Minister in all but name. He became the whipping boy. It was his Prime Minister, François Fillon who remained popular. Something similar is happening to Macron.

When he was elected last year, Emmanuel Macron promised to re-invent the “Jupiterian”, De Gaulle style of presidency for the modern age.

He has carried out several of his campaign promises, simplifying the labyrinthine labour code and starting the reform of the state railway company. On the Jupiter question he has failed, managing to seem arrogant rather than aloof, interfering rather than wise.

He should now withdraw a little and allow Edouard Philippe to become a true Prime Minister on the Gaullist model.

It may well turn out that Philippe, who is nobody’s fool, has better antennae for day to day government than the President.

There are obvious dangers. Philippe might become even more popular. Macron’s age makes it awkward for him to play the elder statesman.

A De Gaulle-type presidency – the strategic general safely distant from the firing line – is difficult to carry off in the age of social media and 24-hour news.

Macron cannot step back entirely.  He would be wise, all the same, to channel, and maybe use up, his Prime Minister’s energy and his popularity.  

John Lichfield is a former France correspondent and foreign editor for the Independent newspaper. You can follow him on Twitter @john_lichfield

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