Oh! I don’t want to lose you, but I think you ought to go. (Oh, M Philippe, Le Havre needs you so.)

Timing is all

On Thursday evening (the day before yesterday), the nation’s regional newspapers began revealing, online, the contents of an exclusive interview with President Macron.

Towards the end, the President was asked whether he had ‘taken his decision about keeping Prime Minister Philippe’ [the subject of non-stop speculation for months, accentuated by Philippe’s annoying (and continuing) tendency to increase his popularity each week … the very reverse of Macron].

Macron replied: ‘For three years, at my side, [Prime Minister Philippe] has performed outstanding work, leading successive Governments. We have carried out important, historic reforms in often very difficult circumstances. He is in charge of important reforms and we have a relationship of trust which is, in a way, unique in the Fifth Republic. I will need to make choices for the new path ahead … There will be a new team.’ He went on ‘For three years he’s been by my side… we’ve carried out important, historic reform often in very difficult circumstances. We have a relationship of trust which is, in a way, unique in terms of the French Republic. I will have to make choices about the new path to follow … there will be a new team … [Edouard Philippe] was not part of my Presidential campaign nor even in my political party [but] he had the same open-minded approach and rose above traditional party allegiances. What we have achieved over three years, with great mutual trust and co-ordination, is unprecedented, contrary to what has been written.’ [Vocabulary Note: Macron is occasionally careful with his language and his choice of pronouns is worth reviewing. As for the OTT repetition of Philippe’s ‘reforms’ that’s taken verbatim from the interview.]

Not so much a tribute, more a eulogy

Just when those honeyed Presidential words were being read around France, in yesterday morning’s papers, the ancient cry ‘Taxi for the Prime Minister’ rang out. Not heard since 2016 when President Hollande in a near-final throw of the dice replaced Manuel Valls by Bernard Cazeneuve (The Last Socialist Prime Minister), it was time for the tradition to be revived .

It’s slightly odd the way in which French Prime Ministers depart their post (like Hemingway’s analysis of how someone went bankrupt: Gradually, then suddenly). Edouard Philippe (the faithful Servitor who’d fought a very good pandemic war, but ended with popularity ratings dangerously higher than his Master) began being shuffled off-stage yesterday morning.

First, there were announcements on the Elysée Palace website.

Lodged between

  • a résumé of Mme Macron’s June diary (hospitals, medics, orchestras, the Duchess of Cornwall, and a chef … not d’orchestre but Hélène Darroze, 2 Michelin rosettes at The Connaught), and
  • the declarations of the Presidents of the Senate/National Assembly, asked by President Macron to think the unthinkable about The New France

a concise notice: ‘Mr Edouard Philippe today submitted his Government’s resignation to the President, who accepted it. The Government will continue dealing with current matters until the new Government is in place.’

Then, later yesterday morning, the further announcement: the President had nominated Jean Castex as Prime Minister and charged him with forming a Government.

The Prime Minister is dead. Long live the Prime Minister.

Under the 5th Republic, the average Prime Minister’s life is 34 months. Edouard Philippe (a considerably-above-average PM) duly lasted longer than average: 37 months. That made him the 8th longest-serving of 22 Prime Ministers since de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958.

A small ‘republican’ ceremony marked the handover from Philippe to Castex late afternoon on the steps of the PM’s lovely Palais Matignon. [We knew something was finally about to happen (38 mins later than promised) when several slovenly-postured members of the Republican Guard smartened up considerably.] Each man said some (apparently genuine) warm and generous words to/of the other and each received long rounds of applause from the gathered political apparatchiks.

Who is Castex? What is he?

Today’s regional newspaper front pages have moved smartly on from yesterday’s Presidential exclusive interview.

Today it’s: ‘Castex The Unknown’ (L’Ardennais), ‘Castex the unknown man is PM’ (Le Courrier de l’Ouest), ‘Who are you, Mr Castex?’ (DNA), ‘The Unknown Man at Matignon’ (L’Est éclair) … at least another five ‘Unknowns’ and a handful of ‘Surprises’ appear on other regional front pages.

Those same ‘Unknown’ and ‘Surprise’ headlines made the national press too.

Apart from left-wing Libération, the only daily which put some political analysis into its headline: ‘Reshuffle: Macron Locksdown Matignon’.

The new Prime Minister had, fortunately, spent several recent weeks around the PM’s lovely Matignon Palace (reviewing curtains?). Summoned by Philippe as Mr Déconfinement, Castex had to devise the strategy for France’s exit from lockdown. His background – a 55-year-old classic senior French public servant and technocrat – made him ideal (as well as a perfect fit for what is likely to be a new downgraded Prime Ministership).

How did Castex rise without trace to the penultimate step on France’s political ladder? Partly by encapsulating The Man In The Shadows who Macron seeks. Hence Castex said, in his first public interview on TF1 last night: ‘I’m not here [as Prime Minister] because I’m looking for the limelight, I want results.’ And partly also by:

  • the inevitable National School of Administration … just like Macron, and Philippe, and almost every person aspiring to a leadership role in France; Macron still threatens to scrap the School for over-successfully ensuring that all born to France’s elite duly achieve their ambition
  • senior special adviser to Health Minister, Xavier Bertrand
  • President Sarkozy’s Deputy Secretary-General at the Elysée (he was soon succeeded in post by an E. Macron performing that very job for President Hollande)
  • Regional Councillor for 5 years (as a member of France’s traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains, although he did resign from his old party yesterday, claiming he didn’t like the way they had failed to ‘support their [Mayoral] candidate in Perpignan, leading to the [ultra-right] victory’ … the sole positive for Le Pen’s former Front National in last week’s municipal elections)
  • re-elected Mayor last March of his home town Prades (pop. 6,000) near the Spanish border: he won 75% of the vote
  • co-ordinator of inter-Ministerial issues (security/transport/environment) for the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games
  • on that same TF1 interview, Castex described himself as a ‘social Gaullist’ ie interventionist and socially-minded, some way from Philippe’s self-description.

Never a Minister, but a local government politician, an advantage when we’re about to get lots of (talk of?) decentralisation. Most importantly, Castex is definitely not (at least today) someone who will take any Presidential limelight. A professional manager

Other matters an ex-Prime Minister can address

President Macron clearly doesn’t want ex-Prime Minister Philippe to get bored. Worse would be if silly ideas of further political advancement were to turn his head.

So the President, reported news weekly Le Point, suggested Philippe ‘reorganise the Presidential majority’ for the coming Presidential Election, with the result that Philippe will ‘continue serving the President’. Result: no possible 2022 Presidential candidature for the man who (as the months slip by) will seem more and more attractive. By then, others will be trying to address monthly mounting unemployment.

But will Philippe really want to wait until 2027? He will still only be 56 in 2027. If enough people, next year, pressed Philippe to return from his Le Havre Mayoral redoubt to save the nation, could he refuse?

And that, of course, would be deliciously karmic: memories of Protégé Servitor Macron killing his own Presidential Master, Hollande.

Meanwhile, a more immediate matter may also occupy the former PM’s mind. At the very moment the door of his Prime Ministerial palace was slamming behind him, a more forbidding door opened ahead of him, the Court of Justice of the Republic.

That Court hears cases where politicians are accused of committing Ministerial misconduct in office. 90 formal complaints (mostly from trade unions and doctors) were submitted to the Court attacking the Government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly focussing on medical equipment shortages.

34 claims were thrown out. 10 were filed. That left several very much alive. 9 have now passed through the initial sieving process. A formal enquiry has begun regarding the possible prosecution of ex-Prime Minister Philippe, as well as both his ‘current’ Health Minister (Véran) and the unfortunate previous Health Minister, Buzyn (her final political act was winning 13% as Presidential party candidate for Paris Mayor).

The process of nominating new Ministers (a handful may stay) is under way. Will there be the same emphasis as in 2017 on not only a female/male balance but the need to draw in people from outside the Magic Political Circle? Not at all sure. As I wrote in my previous post, watch out for Mayors heralding Decentralisation. And all to be completed by 8 July … provided new Ministers’ tax declarations are in order and no complicated conflicts of interest emerge.

When that’s all behind us, we should learn more about what Macron 2.0, post-re-invention, Master Of All He Surveys, is intended to be like.

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