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OPINION: Macron has chosen himself as prime minister and it’s a huge gamble

By replacing France's popular Prime Minister Edouard Philippe with a faceless bureaucrat, President Emmanuel Macron has decided to become his own PM. That's a huge gamble, explains John Lichfield.

OPINION: Macron has chosen himself as prime minister and it's a huge gamble
AFP

To be sacked for being too popular is quite an achievement.

Edouard Philippe’s departure from the Hotel Matignon, the office of the Prime minister, is unprecedented in modern French politics. No prime minister in the Fifth Republic (in other words for nearly 60 years) has been removed while riding high in the opinion polls.

Philippe’s popularity – a 16 percent lead over President Emmanuel Macron in some polls – is not the only reason for his departure. But it certainly destabilised his relationship with Macron. It made the President restless and uneasy as he approaches what looks certain to be a brutal presidential election in 2022.  

The choice of Jean Castex – Jean who? – as Philippe’s successor speaks volumes. Castex, 55, is a senior official and centre-right small-town mayor in the eastern Pyrenees. He currently runs the process to reopen France after the Covid lockdown. He has never held national office.

In other words, Macron has decided to be in effect his own Prime Minister for the next two years, even though constitutionally the two roles are distinct. The post-Covid recession – a 13 percent plunge in GDP in France forecast this year – will destroy  most of Macron’s economic achievements since 2017. Over 800,000 jobs have been created in three years. Up to 800,000 jobs are at risk in the next six months.

Macron has decided he must fight the next election on a lightning programme to create a “new record”, which will be more caring and more green. Philippe, a moderate but fiscally quite rigid conservative, was unhappy with that change of direction.

He also disapproved of Macron’s plan to revive the shelved state pensions reform without the protections against future deficits which Philippe tacked on and the unions hated. The ex-Prime Minister also disliked Macron’s promise to hold a referendum next year on giving a green tinge to the French constitution.

The parting between the two seems to have been amicable enough. There is, I understand, an agreement between the two men that Philippe will not run for the centre-right against Macron in 2022. Philippe’s chance to be President may well come five years later when he will still be only 56.

Macron is taking a huge gamble all the same.

How, you might ask, can you sack, or ease out, a man as popular as Edouard Philippe? In football terms, it’s as if Liverpool FC, having won their first title in 30 years, dismissed their coach Jurgen Klopp and announced that the chairman would now train and pick the team. 

Philippe’s removal will annoy the part of the centre-right electorate which remains Macron friendly. It will give Macron no hiding place if the French economy founders this year and next and his new, more  “green and caring” approach fails to deliver results before the April-May 2022 presidential election.

But there were also great dangers for Macron in keeping Philippe. The Prime Minister’s extraordinary popularity threatened to put Macron in the shade. It might have emboldened a PM who had already been willing to soften, blunt or re-direct Macron initiatives when he disagreed with them.

The high public support for Philippe is, I believe, partly  irrational – a perverse symptom of the widespread Macron hatred in France.   

The ex-PM is a  decent, honest, unassuming man. He radiates  competent calm. Macron does not radiate calm. He is like ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy in that respect.

But the 16 percent polling gap between the two in some recent polls – Macron 38 percent, Philippe 54 percent – is ludicrous. If French people think that their government handled Covid-19 poorly – and that’s what other polls suggest – why blame Macron alone and not Philippe?

Most of the obvious early errors made by France in Covid-19 management can be put down to Phillippe and his government as much as or more than the President.

Macron also got one big call right – the early move towards ending lockdown on 11 May. Philippe resisted and insisted on complex timetables and safeguards which may, in the end, have helped to make  the unlocking more of a success. 

But it was essentially Macron’s call – a bold one. Nearly eight weeks on with no sign of a second wave of the virus, it seems to have been the right one.

This strange see-saw of Macron’s unpopularity and Philippe’s popularity breaks all the unwritten rules of the Fifth Republic. In  De Gaulle’s master plan, the prime minister was disposable and took the bumps and scratches which would otherwise damage the President.

In the world of 24-hour news and social media, that relationship has been turned upside down. The President is blamed for everything but has only limited control of the daily events of government.

Ex-President Francois Hollande, after five unsuccessful years at the Elysée, concluded that the De Gaulle system was to blame.  France needed a President who was also prime minister – something like the United States.

Macron’s choices yesterday have taken a constitutional short-cut in that direction. 

All the blame for France’s struggles in the next year will now fall on him. He also hopes that he will gain at least part of the credit for anything that goes right.

Member comments

  1. The flaw here is that Philippe’s popularity was in the garbage along with Macron’s for most of the last 3 years. He’s had a temporary spike in popularity – quit acting as if France has loved Philippe since 2017.

  2. I’ve only been in France since spring 2019, so I have little sense of what this government has been like (the nitty-gritty details) before then. But I wondered why Macron didn’t speak during the déconfinement announcements. For a nation poised for reopening but nervous about a virus that had ravaged hospitals and communities, it was Phillippe’s face, not Macron’s, on the screen offering the hope and then the good news (as Phase 1 led to 2). I figured initially that it was to shield Macron from any blowback should reopening go badly, but all the emotional stakes were wrapped up in the figure at the podium speaking to the audience. Whether conscious or subconscious, those emotions had to have inflated Phillippe’s approval rating these last weeks.

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MONEY

Revealed: What will you receive from France’s €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

The French parliament has finally passed a massive €65 billion package of measures aimed at helping French residents with the spiralling cost of living. Here's a rundown of the help on offer, who it's available to and when it comes into effect.

Revealed: What will you receive from France's €65bn cost-of-living aid package?

After three weeks of sometimes heated debate, France’s parliament has adopted its multi-part purchasing power package to help mitigate rising cost of living and inflation.

In total, parliament approved a budget of nearly €65 billion for the whole package. 

It includes a raft of measures including price shields, tax rebates and grants. Here’s what is included and who will benefit.

Electricity and gas The government has voted to extend the tariff shield on gas and electricity prices until the end of the year: this means that gas prices will continue to remain frozen and that price hikes for electricity prices will be capped at four percent. 

For who: This applies to everyone who has a gas or electricity account in France.

When: The price freeze is already in effect and will continue until at least December 31st.

Fuel subsidy – The government’s fuel rebate (on petrol/gasoline and diesel) will be increased from €0.18 per litre to €0.30 in September and October, and then in November and December it will fall to €0.10. 

For who: All drivers (including tourists) – this is applied automatically at all fuel stations in France

When: The €0.18 per litre rebate is already in place and remains until August 31st, and rises to €0.30 on September 1st.

Pensions – The index point for pensions will be raised by four percent.

Who: This covers anyone who receives a French pension – roughly 14 million people – it does not affect anyone who gets a pension from another country.

When: From September 9th. 

Abolishing the TV licence fee – The annual TV licence raised €3.7 billion a year for public broadcasting, with the majority having gone toward France Télévisions, but has now been scrapped. It was €138 per household. 

For who: Any household with a television. This equates to about 23 million households in France who will no longer have to pay this yearly tax.

When: The was due to be levied on November 15th, but this year no bills will be sent out.

Tripling the Macron bonus – The maximum annual bonus – which is exempt from income and social security taxes – will be tripled.

It is a one time, tax-free payout that can be given to workers by their employers – if they chose to. Companies will now be able to pay up to €3,000 to their employees (and up to €6,000 for those with a profit-sharing scheme).

Who: This pertains to salariés (employees) whose businesses choose to offer this bonus.

When: The bonus can be paid between August 1st and December 31st.

Rent cap – Rent increases will be limited to 3.5 percent per year for existing tenants. Some cities already have in place their own rent control schemes, but the 3.5 percent cap is nationwide.

Who – This affects anyone who already has a tenancy agreement for a property in France (and also affects all landlords who are banned from making big rent hikes).

When – The 3.5 percent cap concerns annual rent increases that fall between July 2022 and June 2023.

Housing allowance – Those who benefit from personalised assistance for housing (APL) will see that increased by 3.5 percent.

Who: This pertains to those who qualify for governmental financial assistance with rent. Typically, this means low-income households. If you are already on APL – around 3.5 million people – the increase will be automatic, if you think you might qualify, apply through your local CAF.

When: The increase comes in your next payment, with the increased rate backdated to July 1st 2022.

Social benefits – The RSA top-up benefit will be increased by four percent (local authorities, who deal with RSA, will receive €600 million to help them finance and allocate this increase). Additionally, those who benefit from the ‘prime d’activité‘ (activity bonus) will see that value raised by four percent as well.

Who: Unemployed people below the age of 25 can qualify for RSA – this pertains to about 1.9 million people in France. The activity bonus is available to low-income workers – about 4.3 million people.

When: Catch-up payments will be in place from August 18th to September 5th. On September 5th, the updated payment will begin to be paid out.

Student grants – An increase of 4 percent for student grants (bourses) for higher education

Who: Students under the age of 28 who qualify for financial assistance in the form of grants. These students must qualify as ‘financially precarious’ for the school year of 2022-2023.

When: September 2022

Back-to-school grants – Families who meet certain income requirements are eligible for an allowance to help cover back-to-school costs – that grant will increase by four percent this year. There will also be an extra €100 subsidy for eligible families (with an additional €50 per child) paid “to those who need it most” according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire in an interview with RTL. 

Who: Low-income families with children. You can test your family’s eligibility on the website www.service-public.fr. This aid will impact 10.8 million households.

When: The one time payment will be paid at the start of the school-year in September.

The option to convert overtime days into extra cash – This is encompassed in two measures: increasing the ceiling of tax exempt overtime hours to €7,500 and opening the possibility for companies to buy back RTT days from their employees.

Eligible employees covered by the 35-hour week agreement accrue time in lieu if they work overtime, known as RTT days. Currently this time is taken as extra vacation days, but now employees will have the option to forgo the time off and instead be paid extra.

Who: For the buying back of RTT days, this applies to employees (salariés) who have an RTT agreement with their company.

For the increased cap on non-taxed overtime work, this applies to a range of employees, such as those who have 35-hour per week contracts and have their employer request that they work overtime or those who work beyond their part-time contract amount. You can learn more about whether you have the ability to declare overtime hours HERE

When: The RTT days buyout will run from between January 1st, 2022 to December 31st, 2025. For employees eligible for tax-free overtime compensation, the ceiling of €7,500 will only be in place for the year 2022.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: Why is France’s 35-hour week such a sacred cow?

Pay rise for public sector workers – public sector pay will get a four percent rise in the index.

Who: Anyone employed in France as a fonctionnaire (eg civil servants, teachers, librarians).

When: This will be retroactive to July 1st

Assistance for some self-employed workers – A reduction in health and maternity insurance contributions will be introduced for low-earning self-employed workers. “Microentrepreneurs” will also benefit from a reduction in their flat-rate contributions.

Who: Self-employed workers whose monthly income does not exceed 1.6 times the minimum wage and who are registered as ‘microentrepeneurs’

When: TBC

The biometric carte vitale –  The Senate introduced this into the purchasing power package, but it is not a benefit. It will involve the implementation of a biometric carte vitale health card to “fight against social fraud” by adding an electronic chip with biometric data on it to health insurance cards. You can read more HERE.

Who: Everyone who is registered in the French health system and has a carte vitale (about 60 million people)

When: Lawmakers will begin plans to implement the plans in Autumn 2022, but it’s not clearly exactly what form the rollout will take.

How much will these measures impact inflation?

Some measures will likely be more effective than others. For instance, the extension of the tariff shield and increase of the fuel rebate in the early fall is largely to thank for France’s inflation level being two points lower than the European average, according to INSEE.

On the other hand, the tripling of the ceiling for the (optional) Macron bonus will likely not make a large difference. This is because it will likely not be widely taken advantage of, as last year only 4 million French people received the optional bonus, with the approximate average of the bonus having been only €500.

The pension changes will impact about 14.8 million people in France. However, according to economist Christopher Dembik, the revalorsation values are based on actual inflation and not on inflation expectations. “These revaluation measures will be too weak by the time they will be implemented,” Dembik said to French daily Le Parisien.

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