Civil servant appointed as French PM after Philippe stands down

Jean Castex, ‘perfect clone’ of predecessor, tasked with helping Macron change direction

President Emmanuel Macron has replaced Édouard Philippe, his prime minister of three years, with Jean Castex, a virtually unknown high-ranking civil servant who shares many of Mr Philippe's characteristics.

Mr Philippe gave his resignation to Mr Macron on Thursday evening. The dissolution of the government was announced by the Élysée on Friday morning, Mr Castex’s appointment three hours later. He will form a new government within days.

A source at the Élysée said “a new conductor” was needed to orchestrate Mr Macron’s “change of direction” for the last two years of his term. During the Covid-19 crisis, Mr Macron said he intended to “reinvent” himself. Ten French newspapers on Friday published an interview in which he sought to outline “a new path”.

Mr Macron said improving the hospital system, ensuring the well-being of the elderly and giving hope to the young are his three top priorities. The young “will be the first victims of the [coronavirus] crisis”, he said, promising to offer incentives to employers who hire them.

Mr Macron’s new path does not appear to be substantially different from the old one.

Laurent Jacobelli, spokesman for the far-right Rassemblement National, described the new prime minister as "the perfect clone of Édouard Philippe".

The RN is not known for sound political judgment, but the outgoing and incoming prime ministers have a lot in common. Both are white, middle-aged, high-ranking civil servants and graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, which Mr Macron promised to dismantle because it is perceived as elitist. Both left the conservative party Les Républicains to serve Mr Macron.

The main difference, Le Figaro noted, is that Philippe was a protégé of the former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, while Castex is close to former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Macron has repeatedly sought advice from Mr Sarkozy, and some see Mr Sarkozy's hand in his appointment.

There had been speculation that Mr Macron would appoint a woman or a Socialist, but Mr Castex is from the same mould as most of Macron's entourage, including Alexis Kohler, the wonkish secretary-general of the Élysée, to whom Mr Castex is reportedly close.

Green wave

Disappointment was greatest among environmentalists, who believed their "green wave" in last Sunday's municipal elections would force Mr Macron to make the environment his top priority. Julien Bayou, the secretary-general of the Europe Écologie Les Verts party, tweeted that he had never heard Mr Castex talk about ecology.

"We're missing a historic opportunity to put the country on the path to environmental transition and social justice," Mr Bayou told France Info radio. "The false suspense is over. There is no real change of direction."

Richard Ferrand, a former Socialist, speaker of the National Assembly and long-term Macron loyalist, reportedly sent a 22-page letter to the president on Thursday night in which he criticised Mr Philippe for advocating "irritating" reforms such as an aborted move to lower the speed limit, a €5 monthly decrease in the housing allowance and a carbon tax.

But Mr Philippe’s greatest offence may have been lèse-majesté, in becoming more popular than his boss. Mr Macron received a 38 per cent approval rating in a recent poll published in the Journal du Dimanche. Mr Philippe obtained a 50 per cent approval rating in the same poll.

Mr Castex has held one elected position, as mayor of the town of Prades, population 6,000, in the eastern Pyrenees. He has now been elevated to prime minister of a country of 66 million.

France's new prime minister was cabinet director to the conservative politician Xavier Bertrand in two administrations, at the health and labour ministries, then a social affairs adviser and deputy secretary-general at the Élysée under Mr Sarkozy. His understanding of health policy was one of his main qualifications for the job.

Mr Bertrand has said he will challenge Mr Macron in the 2022 presidential election. The appointment of one of his closest aides is seen as Mr Macron’s way of further fragmenting the French right.

As “Mr Reopening” at the end of the lockdown, Mr Castex showed his efficacy as a link between the central state and the provinces, the Élysée said. He will be expected to use that skill in carrying out Mr Macron’s plans for decentralisation.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times