Critics say choice of Castex as new PM reveals a Macron power grab

French President Emmanuel Macron's choice of low-profile technocrat Jean Castex as his new prime minister has prompted new criticism that the centrist leader is consolidating power, even to the point of eclipsing the role of premier altogether.

French Prime Minister Jean Castex in the Essonne department, outside Paris, on July 4, 2020.
French Prime Minister Jean Castex in the Essonne department, outside Paris, on July 4, 2020. © Thomas Coex, AFP

After Macron's centrist La République en Marche (Republic on the Move) party was trounced in municipal election run-offs on June 28 – relegated to also-rans across the country in races that saw greens win big and Socialist incumbents hold on to major cities like Paris and Lille – it seemed change was afoot. Expectations were high that, should Macron choose to replace his conservative prime minister, the winsome and conspicuously popular Édouard Philippe, it would be to break left and bolster his green bona fides. Some wondered whether the 42-year-old leader would finally make good on his purported wish, mooted in 2017, to see only the second woman in French history take charge of a government. 

None of that was to be.

Macron’s new Prime Minister Jean Castex is a 55-year-old career public servant. Plucked, like Philippe, from the ranks of the conservative Les Républicains party, Castex was an Élysée Palace aide to right-wing former president Nicolas Sarkozy from 2010 to 2012.

Like Philippe and Macron, he is a graduate of the École Nationale d'Administration, the elite public service school, after which he became an auditor in the Cour des Comptes, the body that keeps tabs on state and government spending. Far from a household name, the affable Castex was chief of staff to a conservative minister of health and then of labour, but never served in the cabinet or in parliament himself. A rugby fan with a folksy southwestern lilt and the father of four daughters, he was handily re-elected mayor of Prades, a city of 6,000 in the foothills of the Pyrénées, with 76 percent of the vote in the first round in March.

Indeed, until Castex became prime minister on Friday, his most prominent brush with the public eye nationally came only three months ago when he was appointed to draw up France's strategy for easing its coronavirus lockdown. Even then, back in April, Philippe presented Castex as "a senior official who knows perfectly well the healthcare world and who is formidably efficient" – not the sort of ringing endorsement to send hearts aflutter with hopey-changey aspirations for a new prime minister.

'Jupiter' rising

After he won the PM job, pundits left, right and centre were quick to agree that the choice of Castex amounted to a power grab by Macron, who has self-assuredly likened his leadership style to Jupiter, the Roman god of the sky and the heavens. By effectively subsuming the roles of president and prime minister into one, they suggested, Macron had performed a sort of soft institutional coup. It was a risky move to concentrate power and exposure at the Élysée Palace with an eye, presumably, to winning re-election in 2022.

Le Monde observed in an editorial that, by naming a "totally unknown senior official" with "no political existence" to the premiership, Macron "acknowledges, at least in part, the symbolic erasing of the function of prime minister, reduced to the rank of chief of staff...".

"There is an error in the communiqué published by the Elysée Palace," quipped the left-leaning daily Libération. "It says the president named Jean Castex as prime minister. It should actually read, 'The president names Prime Minister ... Emmanuel Macron'". It continued, "By naming a man unknown to the public, with no partisan base, lauded for his sense of organisation and people skills, but absent from national political life and therefore devoid of autonomy, the president has named a chief of staff or, as Nicolas Sarkozy used to say, an 'employee'."

Le Figaro made a similar point. "The president's intention is transparent. He wants a prime minister with no concern or ambition other than making the machinery of state function," the conservative daily opined. "More of a secretary general than a head of government," it said.

Macron "has decided, in effect, to be his own prime minister for the last two years of his mandate", said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe of the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy, in comments to Agence France-Presse.

Calling Castex “complete unknown quantity politically", Rahman said the new PM "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".

Hand-picked right-hand man

Boosting claims that Macron is micro-managing, the president's office managed to impose its choice of chief of staff on the new prime minister's office. Nicolas Revel, Castex's new right-hand man at Matignon, worked in tandem with Macron when both were aides to Socialist ex-president François Hollande from 2012. The Élysée Palace reportedly tried the same manoeuvre with Philippe in 2017, but the imposition was declined.

Moreover, although Castex initially announced that he would make the traditional policy speech outlining a new PM's priorities as early as this week in order to "get to work as quickly as possible", that timeline was disturbed as Macron made it known he would address the nation in some form on Bastille Day, July 14. Castex's speech, it appears, will have to wait. Le Figaro reports that it will now follow Macron's outing by a day, on July 15.

The knocks against Castex, however, may be a touch unfair. The unheralded new premier’s CV does tick a number boxes pertinent to this unprecedented moment and the challenges that await.

Naturally, Castex is well-apprised of the coronavirus pandemic, having orchestrated the exit from a strict lockdown, although France and the wider world are not yet out of the woods. It was reportedly Castex, for instance, who ensured the gradual and progressive return of schoolchildren to class despite Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer's vocal push for a full and speedy back-to-school in May. The experience gained, and that prudent tack, should serve Castex beyond the summer holidays and amid the ever-present danger of a second viral wave.

Castex's experience as a ministerial chief of staff in the health and labour ministries in the late 2000s and later as an aide on social affairs in the president's office is also apropos. After a hiatus amid the Covid-19 crisis, a hotly debated pension reform remains on the table; the tricky dossier saw prolonged strike action bring the French capital, in particular, to a virtual standstill in December and January and the issue is poised to return to the agenda in short order.

The pandemic also brought healthcare reform to the fore, with the government pledging to overhaul the hospital system in response to the coronavirus crisis. The wide-ranging consultations known as the Ségur de la Santé are set to conclude this week.

Castex's experience at the Cour des Comptes could also be an asset to a government poised to negotiate its way through the worst recession since World War II, with the coronavirus crisis expected to see the economy shrink by 11 percent this year. The new PM can even boast experience pertinent to the panoply of sporting events delayed by the pandemic, having been a coordinator of government planning for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris.

Moreover, the naming of a small-town mayor from the Pyrénées jibes with the push – brought to bear during a pandemic that spread unevenly across the country – for Paris to entrust more powers to local actors more closely attuned to local needs.

To hear Castex himself tell it, he might have spent his professional life under the public's radar, but that doesn't mean he'll be under the president's thumb in office. Bristling at the suggestion he was named as "a subordinate doomed to secondary tasks", Castex told the Journal du Dimanche over the weekend, "When you get to know me, you'll see that my personality doesn't dissolve into the term 'employee'."

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