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Macron replaces popular PM with low-profile figure after ‘rivalry over who leads’

France's new prime minister Jean Castex leaves the Élysée Palace in Paris on May 19, 2020.
France's new prime minister Jean Castex leaves the Élysée Palace in Paris on May 19, 2020. © Gonzalo Fuentes, AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron named senior civil servant Jean Castex – who coordinated France’s reopening strategy after almost two months of Covid-19 lockdown – the country’s new prime minister on Friday as part of an expected cabinet reshuffle. 

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The relatively low-profile Castex replaces Édouard Philippe, who resigned earlier in the day as is expected before a government reshuffle. Macron is reshaping his government to focus on restarting the economy after months of lockdown and a poor showing for his party in local elections last week.

Castex, 55, is a career civil servant who has worked with multiple governments, but is considered close to right-wing ex-President Nicolas Sarkozy, of whose presidential office he was deputy security general. The gradual reopening plan he has spearheaded for Macron has been generally viewed as a success so far.

Macron names Jean Castex as new French Prime Minister, but who is he?

The switch came as a surprise to many observers, seeing as Philippe saw his popularity increase in recent weeks after what many French saw as his effective steering of the country through the coronavirus crisis.

In an interview given to several local newspapers on Thursday, Macron said he is seeking a “new path” to rebuild the country for the two remaining years of his term. He also praised the outgoing Philippe’s “outstanding work” over the past three years.

“I will need to make choices to lead [the country] down the path,” Macron said.

The reshuffle comes days after a green wave swept over France in local elections last Sunday, when Macron saw his young centrist party defeated in France’s biggest cities.

That’s while Macron’s efforts to boost job creation have been swept away by the economic and social consequences of the country’s lockdown. 

The replacement of Philippe with Castex is “about strategy, about Macron trying to exert his influence”, said Andrew Smith, a professor of French politics at the University of Chichester. 

‘Macron is putting himself back in control’ by naming Jean Castex prime minister

“We’ve often heard Macron described as having an hyperpresidence – this idea that he takes personal involvement in so many things,” Smith continued. “With Philippe, we saw a lot of interaction between the two, which I think was relatively effective, and of course France has had a pretty decent response to the coronavirus crisis, despite what the opinion polls say.

“But the prime minister is supposed to be a presidential prophylactic, as it were, who shields him from these difficult decisions – and the worry is that when your prime minister becomes more popular than your president, you have rivalry over who is going to lead,” Smith concluded.

'Our first priority will be to rebuild economy'

Macron’s government had been facing obstacles and criticism even before the virus crisis. But as the pandemic was peaking in the country in March and April, authorities came under fire anew for the lack of masks, tests and medical equipment. 

The government issued a €460 billion emergency package through a state-funded partial employment plan, tax cuts and other financial aids for businesses. But Macron needs to adapt his policies further, as France’s economy is expected to shrink by 11 percent this year.

The unemployment rate that fell from 9.2 percent at the beginning of Macron’s term in 2017 to 7.6 percent earlier this year – its lowest level since 2008 – is now expected to increase.

“Our first priority will be to rebuild an economy that is strong, ecological, sovereign and united,” Macron said in a televised address to the nation on June 14.

He ruled out any rise in taxes and instead said “working and producing more” is the proper response to bankruptcies and layoffs caused by the coronavirus. 

Macron is also seeking to emphasise the creation of new jobs with climate-oriented policies including greener transport systems and industries.

Philippe, 49, is expected to become the mayor of his hometown of Le Havre after his victory in last Sunday's vote. A conservative and a former member of the right-wing Les Républicains party, he joined Macron’s government in May 2017.

Philippe saw his popularity increase in recent weeks, according to French polling agencies, showing that the French public feels he did a good job during the lockdown, including pushing for an emergency package to support the French economy.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

 

 

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