French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a working session with leaders of the G5 Sahel West African countries
French President Emmanuel Macron takes part in a working session with leaders of the G5 Sahel West African countries during the G5 Sahel summit in Nouakchott, Mauritania June 30, 2020.

Buffeted by social unrest, economic woes and the coronavirus pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron is in the process of rebooting his government two years out from a reelection bid, hoping to go one better than immediate predecessors who served just one term.

Among his worries, aides say, is the possible emergence of an unconventional or populist candidate. But his biggest threat may rest with the prime minister he just fired, Edouard Philippe, a center-right politician who was replaced last week with a technocrat of limited political ambitions — 55-year-old Jean Castex.

Philippe’s departure did not come as a surprise to France’s political classes. His likely dismissal had been gossiped about for weeks in the national press. Conventional wisdom had it that Macron, who won as a center-left candidate but has been tacking right for much of his presidency, would shift leftward in preparation for his reelection bid. Philippe would therefore have to be replaced by a center-left figure.

But Castex, the father of four from a small town in the southwest Gers region in the Pyrenees, and a high-level backroom functionary who has been overseeing the easing of France’s coronavirus lockdown, is a Gaullist, which he underscored in his first television interview in the new role.

“I am a social Gaullist,” said Castex, who served as a deputy chief of staff for former President Nicolas Sarkozy. “My values are responsibility. That is to say that we cannot expect everything from the state.” 

FILE - French President Emmanuel Macron and French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe attend the traditional annual ceremony at the Mont-Valerien, a memorial for the French who fought against the Nazis and those who were killed by the occupying forces.

What went wrong?

French newspaper Le Monde suggested Macron dismissed Philippe because he feared his prime minister was starting to eclipse him, and a further two years in the post would possibly boost him more.

“Macron has decided to combine the two posts — he will be president and prime minister at the same time,” one of the French leader’s supporters told the paper.

Philippe had become a popular figure, widely credited with being responsible for the things that went well with France’s handling of the pandemic but not being blamed for what went badly. The coronavirus death tally in France stands at around 30,000.

Philippe, also mayor of the port city of Le Havre, had increasingly shown signs of independence, refusing to accept a Macron loyalist, Nicolas Revel, as director of the cabinet.

“What Philippe never fully appreciated was that as prime minister, he was there to get the blame for trouble, but for the president to take the credit when things go right,” said a former Macron aide, who asked not to be identified.

Sagging polls

Macron is struggling in the opinion polls and is facing rising discontent in the political party he created, La République en Marche. Last month a left-wing faction of 17 of his lawmakers broke away to form a new parliamentary group, Ecology, Democracy, Solidarity. Across all factions, there is mounting alarm at the party’s future electoral prospects.

That worry was compounded last month when Macron’s party suffered badly at municipal elections, failing to win even one big French city, with many cities traditionally held by the Socialists or the center-right falling into the hands of the Greens. 

In the race for the mayor’s job in Paris, his candidate came in a poor third. That all stands in contrast to the support Macron garnered in the big cities in 2017, when at the age of 39, he pulled off a surprise presidential win and outmaneuvered the established parties.

Some observers suspect that Castex’s appointment signals Macron’s belief that his electoral fortunes may depend on small-town and rural France and that his new prime minister’s main role is to connect the metropolitan Macron and his government better with La France périphérique (peripheral France) to compensate for diminished urban backing.

Whether he can pull that off is another question, analysts say. The turbulence last year caused by nationwide “yellow vest” protests was spawned in small-town France — an agitation triggered by the imposition of "green taxes" on fuel and anger at what many in La France périphérique saw as an elite-minded government.

Former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe applauds newly-appointed Prime Minister Jean Castex in the courtyard of the Matignon Hotel during the handover ceremony in Paris, France July 3, 2020.

'New road'

Macron has said he plans this month to map out a “new road” for France. Two weeks ago, he told the French in a television address that a change of direction for the country was necessary after the pandemic. 

“Each of us must reinvent ourselves ... and collectively, we must do things differently. I apply this first and foremost to myself,” he said.

The French president has gone through several reinventions during his time in office and another one may be hard to pull off, commentators say.

Some argue that there is an incoherence in his various machinations recently. His dismissal of Philippe is a case in point, they say. If he plans to continue to govern from the right of the political spectrum, why sack his popular prime minister?

The conservative Le Figaro newspaper warned ahead of the unfolding cabinet reshuffle that getting rid of Philippe would go down badly with center-right voters, Macron’s core group of supporters — now the left — is abandoning him, angry with his efforts at pension reform. 

“This would be perceived as a political punishment that would not be understood,” cautioned Guillaume Tabard, an editorial writer at the paper.

Some commentators say there is an element of desperation to Macron’s recent political moves — or at least an opportunistic casting around to find the best route to secure reelection. Last month, media reports claimed he had considered resigning and forcing a snap election, calculating that his prospects for reelection would be better.

He has prompted surprise in the French capital, Paris, by reaching out for phone conversations to anti-establishment figures, including Éric Zemmour, a political essayist favored by the far-right, and Jean-Marie Bigard, a controversial French comic who might be tempted to consider mounting his own presidential run.