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.