ER Editor: For further background, see this piece by Victor Mallet of FT titled France’s prime minister: will he stay or go?
Macron considers appointing a new prime minister — himself
The incumbent, Edouard Philippe, is outshining the French president.
John Lichfield is a former foreign editor of the Independent and was the newspaper’s Paris correspondent for 20 years.
CALVADOS, France — Elyséeology, or the art of Macron-watching, is the new Kremlinology.
Is the French president going to dump his popular prime minister, Edouard Philippe, next month? Did he really consider resigning the presidency and running again, as rumor and a newspaper report insisted?
The Elysée Palace ridiculed that idea — but only after letting the story run for most of a day.
So let’s indulge in a little Elyséeology and try to read Emmanuel Macron’s intentions from what he, and others, have said or what they have avoided saying.
“I will take up the battle alongside you … I will engage … I will commit myself” — French President Emmanuel Macron
There’s little doubt that the president wants to appoint a new prime minister. He even knows who should do the job: Macron himself, in practice though not in name.
Macron knows that he has an uphill struggle if he is to be reelected in two years’ time. No French president has clinched a second term since Jacques Chirac achieved that feat (by a landslide but also by default) against Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002.
The achievements of Macron’s first three years — more than 800,000 jobs created, for example — will be obliterated by a brutal post-coronavirus recession (an 11 percent fall in GDP this year, according to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire).
Macron knows he will be blamed for whatever goes wrong. So he wants to become more directly associated with — and more in control of — whatever the government does to put things right.
The language of his TV address on June 14 implied that he plans to be more hands-on in the final two years of his mandate. “I will take up the battle alongside you … I will engage … I will commit myself.”
He called for the “reinvention” of France — a more caring France, a more ecologically aware France, but also a “harder working” France. (ER: This means turning over the country to an even more aggressive deindustrialisation agenda and making people work more for much less – at least, for those who still have a job after this unnecessary lockdown. “Caring” doesn’t come into it.)
That poses a problem for Macron’s partnership with his prime minister. Philippe is not a man to be easily sidelined.
If Macron wants to grab the reins of government, as former President Nicolas Sarkozy largely did, he will have to replace Philippe with a malleable and managerial figure who will allow himself to be pushed aside.
The second round of the municipal elections on June 28 will not come to the president’s aid. The results for Macron’s party will be poor, making a government reshuffle of some kind essential. But Philippe looks certain to win in his old fiefdom, Le Havre, providing “le pouvoir” with one of its few victories.
There is a strong chance Philippe will depart after next weekend’s election — although that’s not yet a certainty. If it happens, the separation will be amicable, according to senior figures in Macronland.
It may seem crazy to sack a popular prime minister. But Philippe’s’ popularity has become part of the problem.
France has performed reasonably well in containing the coronavirus pandemic — not brilliantly but not badly. And yet voters and large parts of the media believe that the country’s performance has been disastrous. (ER: acting as if the virus was a ‘Chinese’ thing and nothing to worry about is part of the problem, as is failing to provide protective gear for frontline medical staff; the elderly were locked in care homes and abandoned – lawsuits are now expected; hydroxychloroquine was curiously classified as a dangerous drug just before it became needed.)
They blame the government. Or rather, they don’t blame the government — they blame Macron.
The truth is that several poor decisions have been made by Philippe and his ministers. Some of the better achievements are Macron’s.
The decision to delay lockdown to go ahead with the first round of the municipal elections in March? That was Philippe’s call, against Macron’s better judgment.
The decisions to abandon systematic testing and declare face masks unnecessary for the general public? These were decisions taken by the Philippe government, on scientific advice. (ER: This advice on masks should have been maintained.)
The decision to go for an early easing of lockdown on May 11? That was Macron’s call, against the wishes of Philippe and many medical advisers.
It has proved to be an inspired decision — or guess. In any case, Macron got it right. More than a month later, there’s yet to be a sign of a second wave of COVID-19 infections or deaths.
(ER: this is hardly surprising since the peak rate of cases happened in the middle of March making lockdown unnecessary!)
The breakthrough with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on mutual EU debt to finance the post-coronavirus recovery? Some credit goes to Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire. Most should go to Macron.
And yet, opinion polls in recent weeks have shown the prime minister’s approval rating rising to about 57 percent, while Macron struggles at 41 percent (actually not too bad compared with his immediate predecessors in the Elysée).
That’s in no small part due to a visceral dislike of Macron on the tribal left and the tribal right. But other, non-ideological, French people also find him cold or arrogant or unconvincing.
He has a solid 20 percent to 30 percent support among the pro-European center of French politics but the Macronistes are mostly rational and conditional. The Macron-haters are passionate. Telling pollsters that they quite like Philippe is another way of sticking it to the man they despise.
There’s no denying, however, that the insolent size of Philippe’s lead over Macron is unprecedented — a repudiation of the president, even if it wasn’t engineered by Philippe himself.
For a French prime minister to fly high in popular opinion while his boss, the president, flounders is tantamount to an unconstitutional act in the double-headed system of government put in place by Charles de Gaulle 61 years ago.
The prime minister is supposed to be a detachable front bumper that absorbs the disapproval of the electorate while the president remains relatively undamaged.
The system hasn’t worked properly for years — certainly not since Jacques Chirac’s referendum in 2000 brought the presidential term in line with the parliamentary electoral calendar.
Macron, like François Hollande before him, points privately to this as another reason for his difficulties.
De Gaulle’s concept of a chauffeur-driven government was supposed to allow the French president the best of both worlds: power without detailed daily responsibility. In the age of social media and 24-hour news, that pattern has reversed.
The president is blamed for everything, but he has limited daily control over the actions of his government — or rather his prime minister’s government. Macron gets on well with Philippe but the wider teams at the Elysée and Matignon, the prime minister’s residence, are often at loggerheads.
According to Françoise Fressoz, a commentator at the newspaper Le Monde, Macron’s closest aides complain privately that there is a “deep state” at Matignon that delays or resists the imaginative, disruptive ideas coming from the Elysée.
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