Macron tightens grip ahead of 2022 challenge

Paris (AFP) –


By replacing his popular prime minister with a little-known bureaucrat, French President Emmanuel Macron has signalled that he intends to tighten the reins on government ahead of a bid for reelection in 2022, analysts say.

Macron anointed Jean Castex to take over from Edouard Philippe, whose popularity rose as the public face of France's coronavirus response even as the president lost support and his party suffered a humiliating rout in local government elections.

"And the new prime minister is.... #EmmanuelMacron," analyst Jean Garrigues of the University of Orleans tweeted after the surprise appointment of Castex on Friday.

The move, he told AFP, was Macron's way "to reclaim the dominant spot in the executive couple" after long butting heads on policy with Philippe.

Contrary to expectations that Macron would choose from the left of the political spectrum to appease widespread concern over his social agenda, the president looked to the right.

The new premier, like his predecessor, comes from the rightwing Republicans party of former Nicolas Sarkozy, who Castex had served as deputy chief of staff.

But, importantly, he is "a complete unknown quantity politically," according Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy.

"President Emmanuel Macron has decided, in effect, to be his own prime minister for the last two years of his mandate," Rahman said.

Castex "will be the manager and de-facto chief of staff while Macron takes direct control of government in a lightning attempt to create a new record which he can present to the electorate in 2022."

- Continuity -

The mayor of a tiny commune in southern France, Castex's most prominent job has been to oversee the easing of France's coronavirus lockdown.

For many, his nomination represented a missed opportunity for the centrist Macron to mark a political shift left with a more social, pro-ecology figurehead, maybe a woman.

"The appointment of Jean Castex is a sort of continuity from Edouard Philippe: he is a local representative, like Edouard Philippe, and comes from the centre-right like Edouard Philippe," Bruno Cautres, a political analyst at the Cevipof research centre in Paris told AFP.

"We will have to see the complete composition of the new government to understand the whole message that Emmanuel Macron wanted to convey."

Making the announcement Friday, the presidency said that while Castex was from the right, he came from the "social Gaullist" school, meaning he was not a strict free-market capitalist.

But this did little to assuage the critics.

"Everything changes so that nothing changes! A right-wing man replaces a right-wing man to lead the same anti-social and anti-ecological agenda," reacted Manon Aubry of the far-left LFI party.

And Socialist Party spokesman Boris Vallaud tweeted: "... the right succeeds the right."

- 'Shift to the right' -

While many on the left have turned on the president since he took office in 2017, some on the right have appreciated his firm approach to months of "yellow vests" anti-government protests triggered by a perceived loss of spending power.

"There is undoubtedly a shift to the right" in Macron's politics, said Garrigues.

Voters on the centre right also backed Macron's Republic on the March (LREM) party in European elections last year, "and he counts on them, it seems to me, to be reelected in 2022," the analyst added.

He cautioned against reading too much into the Green surge that saw ecologists take key city halls in local elections last month, and widely interpreted as a leftist advance.

Instead, Garrigues said, opinion polls show that voters' "expectations are, above all, economic recovery and unemployment."

France's two-round presidential election system means that Macron may again face far right National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen in a run-off vote in 2022 -- as long as he survives the first round.

The president faces a difficult period ahead as he seeks to reinvigorate an economy battered by weeks-long business closures as the country battened down the hatches against a COVID-19 outbreak that has claimed nearly 30,000 lives so far.

Rahman argued that most of Macron’s achievements since 2017 to create jobs, increase investment and make labour laws more flexible -- "will be buried by an avalanche of bad news in the next six months."

The announcement of cabinet ministers to replace Philippe's outgoing government is expected in the coming days.