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‘Big surprises’: French PM to unveil new government

France's new Prime Minister Jean Castex will present a new government tasked with steering the country worst economic crisis since World War II and injecting fresh momentum into the presidency of Emmanuel Macron.

'Big surprises': French PM to unveil new government
French former PM Edouard Philippe applauds the new PM Jean Castex. Photo: AFP

Castex, a senior bureaucrat and provincial mayor almost completely unknown to the French before his appointment Friday, is seeking to move quickly and decisively to convince skeptics he is the right choice for the job.

The 55-year old was appointed by Macron in place of Edouard Philippe as the president seeks a fresh start for the final two years of his mandate ahead of 2022 presidential elections.

'Jean who?' – Five things to know about France's new PM

France's economy has been battered into a historic recession by the coronavirus crisis while Macron's Republic on the Move (LREM) party is reeling from its drubbing in local elections late last month.

Macron wrote on Twitter Sunday that a “new path” was needed, listing the new government's priorities as “reviving the economy, continuing an overhaul of our social protection and the environment, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty”.

 

The failure of LREM – founded in the run-up to Macron's presidential bid in 2017 – in local elections again showed up its lack of a grassroots base.

Analysts have said that by appointing a low-profile figure in place of Philippe – whose popularity was outstripping Macron's – the president wants to tighten his grip on the reins of government ahead of 2022.

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

 

'New talent'

French parliament speaker Richard Ferrand said he expected the new government to be announced on Monday morning after an intense weekend of exchanges between Castex and Macron.

An aide to Macron, who asked not to be named, said there would be “new talent” and “people who have come from different horizons”.

Another aide told Le Parisien newspaper: “You will see, you will have big surprises”.

However few details have leaked over what changes there will be to the government, which under the centrist Macron has always been a delicate balancing act between left and right.

Castex, who drew up the plan for France to come out of its coronavirus lockdown, was himself a member of the right-wing The Republicans (LR) but confirmed he has now handed in his party card.

One job on the line is that of interior minister Christophe Castaner, criticised both by Black Lives Matter protesters over alleged racism in the police force but also by officers for a perceived lack of support.

But it is far from clear if those holding the key ministries of state – ex-rightwinger Bruno Le Maire at economy and former Socialists Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly at foreign affairs and defence – will be moved on.

'Not an option'

Much attention is on the future of the environment ministry, a troubled domain for Macron after the sensational resignation from the post of popular campaigner Nicolas Hulot in 2018 on the grounds that it was impossible to get anything done.

Castex, not so far known for his green credentials, has said “ecology is not an option but an obligation”, following a strong performance by the Greens in municipal polls.

But Yannick Jadot, an MEP and key figure in the EELV green party, retorted that there was “perfect continuity between Jean Castex and Edouard Philippe”, saying neither “had ever shown any kind of interest in the climate or biodiversity”.

Philippe meanwhile has returned to the relative peace of his old job as mayor of the Normandy port of Le Havre. Opinion divided over whether he will fade into the background or could one day pose a challenge to Macron. 

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POLITICS

French military bans Russians from chateau over Ukraine war

The French military has banned Russian nationals from visiting the Chateau de Vincennes, a medieval fortress, tourist attraction and military site on the edge of Paris, due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, officials told AFP.

French military bans Russians from chateau over Ukraine war

Once the residence of French kings and among Europe’s best-preserved monuments of its kind, the castle is for the most part open to the public, including for tours, concerts, theatre plays and other events.

But although best-known as a tourist attraction it is also technically a military site, housing part of the French armed forces’ historical archives, to which access is restricted.

The mounted Garde republicaine – a division of the French military – are also partially based at the chateaux.

It is therefore covered by a French ban on Russian nationals entering army territory that was issued after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

Each year some 150,000 people visit the chateau, paying €9.50 per adult admission.

But on July 28th, two Russian women were refused access.

“A guard at the metal detector asked to see my passport,” said one of the women, 31, who works as a journalist and has been in France for five months, having left Russia “because of the war”.

On inspecting the document, the guard informed her she couldn’t pass, the woman, who asked not to be named, told AFP.

Another guard also denied her entry and gave as the reason “because you are Russian”, she said, adding she couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

Contacted by AFP, the defence ministry confirmed late Monday that it had, indeed, “restricted access to military installations to Russian nationals” because of the invasion.

But after media coverage and social media comment, the ministry contacted AFP on Tuesday to say that the guards had in fact “indiscriminately applied a rule established in February concerning all military installations”.

“This rule cannot be applied in the same way for strategic sites and for sites accessible to the public, such as museums,” a spokesman said.

The ministry said security staff would now be informed of the distinction “to avoid any further incidents of this kind”.

Russian journalists could, however, apply for an exemption, a ministry official added.

The majority of France’s most popular tourist sites have no military function and would not be affected by the ban. 

Since Moscow sent troops into Ukraine in February, France has taken in some 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, government figures show.

About 73,500 Russian immigrants lived in France in 2021, according to the national statistics office Insee.

There has been debate within the European Union about whether further limits should be placed on Russians visiting the bloc for tourism or personal reasons.

Russia’s neighbour Finland last week issued a plan to limit tourist visas  for Russians but also emphasised the need for an EU-level decision on the matter.

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