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Loyal ally or rival: Is former PM Phillippe set to challenge Macron for the Elysée in 2022?

When Edouard Philippe stepped aside as French prime minister July last year after three turbulent years marked by battling protests, strikes and the pandemic, he wore cufflinks adorned with flip-flops and had the air of a man happy to leave national politics.

Loyal ally or rival: Is former PM Phillippe set to challenge Macron for the Elysée in 2022?
Former Prime Minister Edouard Philippe in Paris on April 4th. Photo: Thomas COEX / AFP

Philippe, who was almost unknown nationally when President Emmanuel Macron appointed him premier in 2017, retreated to the relative obscurity of his post as mayor of the Normandy city of Le Havre.

But after being thrust by Macron into the frontline of battling the “yellow vest” protests, strikes on pension reforms and then above all the Covid-19 pandemic, Philippe left office enjoying unusually high popularity and visibility for a French premier.

The question now is could Philippe – who left the main right-wing Les Républicains (LR) party ahead of becoming premier – now be plotting a course to challenge his former boss in 2022 presidential elections?

After keeping a low-profile for nine months, Philippe has suddenly reemerged over the last days, giving print and TV interviews and on Wednesday published a book he has co-written about his stint as prime minister.

But in a series of philosophical and sometimes sphinx-line musings on loyalty and freedom, he has left commentators scratching their heads over whether he plans to stand against Macron.

ANALYSIS: Four key questions on France’s 2022 presidential election

‘Freedom’

“The ambiguous game of Edouard Philippe is annoying the Macronistes,” said the Le Monde daily, using the term employed in France for diehard Macron loyalists.

“Edouard Phillipe: Is he loyal or a rival?” asked the left-leaning Libération on its front page Wednesday.

“The former prime minister is back on the national scene.”

After a listener on France Inter radio Wednesday told Philippe in a phone-in he would vote for him in a presidential election, the former premier let the speculation bubble further.

“I have a complete freedom today… If I can weigh into the public debate – and not just the presidential elections – then I will feel I am taking my responsibilities,” he said.

“I want no-one to doubt neither my loyalty, my liberty nor my desire to serve the country,” said Philippe, who conspicuously never joined Macron’s ruling Republic on the Move (LREM) ruling party.

In an interview with the Le Point weekly published last week, Philippe had said he has “no intention of seeing my convictions or my ideas go to waste without fighting for them,” adding he liked “to be in charge.”

Philippe had impressed with his earnest, realistic but assured tone during the darkest days of the pandemic’s first wave. His rising popularity was reportedly one reason Macron chose to replace him with Jean Castex in a reshuffle in July 2020.

‘Betrayal’

“He left in a state of grace, with his popularity at its height,” said Frederic Dabi, deputy director general of the Ifop pollster, told AFP.

“But popularity is not worth anything if it is not used,” he added.

Most analysts expect the 2022 elections to become a duel between the centrist Macron and far right leader Marine Le Pen.

READ ALSO Five minutes to understand how France’s 2022 presidential election will work

But the emergence of a strong candidate on the right could upend calculations and even raise the possibility of one of the frontrunners being knocked out in the first round.

Former minister Xavier Bertrand, another right-wing heavyweight, has said he plans to stand. Like Philippe, he is no longer a member of The Republicans party.

Figures within The Republicans – the party of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy whose lingering ambitions may have been ended by a graft conviction – have made clear they won’t ever forgive Philippe for joining with Macron.

“His arrival as prime minister was shrouded in the betrayal of his political family and his ideas,” said the party’s deputy leader Guillaume Peltier.

“To entrust the future of France to him is like the Roman Empire entrusting its destiny to Brutus,” he said.

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JOHN LICHFIELD

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

As the French government and unions continue their increasingly bitter struggle over pension reform, John Lichfield looks at who is winning the battle for public opinion and which side will back down first.

ANALYSIS: Who is winning the battle over French pension reform?

Over one million people took to the streets of France again on Tuesday to protest against the “cruelty” and “brutality” of a modest pension reform.

The crowds – 1.27m  in total –  were probably the biggest of their kind since December 1995 when the late President Jacques Chirac was eventually forced to dump a similar (but more radical) change in the French retirement system.

On the other hand, a second 24-hour strike against the wicked notion of working to the age of 64 was substantially weaker yesterday.  Trains, schools, oil refineries, power stations and government offices were disrupted but much less so than on the first “day of action” on January 19th.

Who is winning the war?

The government has certainly lost the communications battle. It had hoped that opposition to its pension reform would be melting by now. The numbers opposing the change have grown on the street and in the opinion polls.

And yet President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne show no signs of giving way.

Cold feet among the government’s parliamentary troops and allies on the centre-right will no doubt grow colder. There will be some extra concessions for women who have broken their careers to start families and, maybe, for people who started work in their teens.

But Macron is determined to stand by the “cruel, brutal, unjust” proposal that by the year 2030 French people should work officially until they are 64 – when most Europeans  already work until they are 65 are older.

He has little choice. He has painted himself into a corner.  His second term, scarcely begun, will be a domestic wasteland if he gives way.

We are therefore only at the start of the conflict. There will be two further days of action, or inaction, on Tuesday, February 7th and Saturday, February 11th. The text of the reform will go before the National Assembly on Monday.

The country is likely to be disrupted, periodically and maybe continuously, until the end of March.

Both sides now face awkward decisions on strategy.

The eight trades union federations have been unusually united so far. They have agreed a pattern of one-day strikes and marches of increasing frequency in the hope that rising numbers on the streets will somehow convince Macron that he cannot reform France against its will.

The small increase in the size of marches nationwide on Tuesday was a victory for the unions of sorts. But it fell short of the kind of mass revolt – 1,500,000 or more on the streets – that some union leaders had hoped for.

Radical voices within the union movement, including Philippe Martinez, the leader of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT) now suggest that it is time to shift to a strategy of continuous strikes in key industries, from railways to oil refineries to power plants. Some sections of his federation are already threatening open-ended stoppages to try to bring the country to its knees.

It was, they point out, long strikes on the railways and elsewhere which forced Chirac to back down in 1995, not the scale of the marches on the street.

The more moderate union voices, led by Laurent Berger of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail (CFDT), say such a strategy would be a calamity. Long queues at petrol stations or a long shut-down on the railways and Paris Metro would anger public opinion.

The February holidays are approaching. A collision threatens between two French popular obsessions: the right to go on holidays and the right to retire early.

If the unions disrupt holiday travel, Berger points out, they will lose the support of part of the public on the sanctity of early retirement.

There is therefore a strong possibility that the united union front will shatter in the next couple of weeks.

Macron also face a strategic choice between soft and hard lines. That choice may already have been made.

Macron and especially his Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne have tried so far to make the consensual argument that reform is needed to make the state French pension system more “fair” and to protect it from eventual collapse. That may be true but it is not immediately true.

Their hope was that voters of the centre and moderate left could be persuaded reluctantly to support a just and necessary reform. That approach has failed.

There are signs that Macron is switching to a different argument.

The French pension system is in permanent, massive deficit – €33 billion a year, equivalent to half the defence budget, is taken from general taxation to stop the pensions system for retired public workers from going bust.

The present system is a kind of official Ponzi scheme which only survives if active workers and their employers  pay the pensions of the retired. But there is a  permanent imbalance, which will grow worse in the years ahead. Only massive subsidies from the taxpayer keep the Ponzi scheme alive.

The pension system therefore acts as a ball-and-chain on the French economy, Macron and his government argue. It needs to be reformed, not just for the sake of future pensioners but for the sake of creating jobs now.

There is a great deal of truth in that. But it is, in French terms, the kind of unashamedly “right wing” or liberal argument, which Macron and Borne had hoped  to avoid.

The new government communications strategy abandons all hope of persuading the broad Left. It is aimed at centre-right voters and especially at centre-right opposition deputies whose votes the government needs to push the reform through the National Assembly.

The centre-right Les Républicains have long made exactly the economic argument about pension reform that Macron is now making. He hopes to galvanise, or embarrass, the waverers in their ranks.

Whether that works any better than the previous “just reform” argument remains to be seen. The French centre-right has never been celebrated for its consistency.

In any case, the government appears to be preparing not just one but two constitutional “jokers” or “trumps” to ensure that it wins the parliamentary card game on pension reform.

On top of Article 49.3 (which allows some legislation to be approved by decree without a normal vote), the government is considering cutting debate in the Assembly to 20 days by using the rarely employed “guillotine” powers under Article 47.1.

Either would be cue for much shrieking by the opposition and much anger, and some violence, on the streets. Macron’s popularity, already shrinking, would doubtless collapse.

In a sense, he has nothing to fear. He cannot run again. Après moi le déluge. It would be left to his potential centrist successors to pick up the pieces in 2027 against an emboldened Far Right.

But what a mess. What extreme methods – and what potentially extreme consequences – to enact what is, in all conscience, a sensible and modest reform.

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