President Emmanuel Macron has remained silent in France's prolonged bout of soul-searching about its own record of police violence, instead delegating responsibility to Christophe Castaner, his interior minister.
Castaner announced new measures such as banning police use of the choke-hold. But he was criticised for saying that policemen will be “systematically suspended” for every suspicion of racist behaviour.
Finally, it was prime minister Edouard Philippe who found the appropriate words, in visits to a police commissariat and a youth organisation in an immigrant suburb of Paris on Tuesday.
"There are not French people of this or that origin," Philippe said. "There are children of the Republic, and France protects all her children."
Philippe paid homage to the “formidably difficult” job done by police. “We owe them respect and confidence,” he said. Citizens nonetheless had “the duty to be demanding”.
Though Philippe has headed the government since Macron took office in 2017, he came into his own during the coronavirus crisis, and shot ahead of Macron in opinion polls.
Macron's approval rating of 40 per cent in the June Ifop-Fiducial poll for Paris Match and Sud Radio is perfectly respectable. But Philippe's popularity, at 53 per cent, marks what Frédéric Dabi of Ifop calls "a little state of grace".
Respondents to an Elabe poll in late May listed arrogance and authoritarianism as Macron's chief character traits, courage and dynamism as those of Philippe. Macron surpassed Philippe by 25 points on arrogance. Philippe received 13 percentage points more for sincerity.
It’s not uncommon to hear former Macron supporters say they want Philippe to succeed him in 2022. Philippe could become Macron’s most dangerous rival.
French prime ministers were once regarded as a shield or fuse who protected the president. But the 24-hour news cycle, and the fact that the president is involved in virtually every policy issue, means that he, not the prime minister, is now held responsible when things go wrong.
The previous two presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, were both less popular than their prime ministers.
A certain tension is inherent in the French system of a dual executive branch. Staff at the Élysée and Matignon, the president’s and prime minister’s offices, often snipe at each other.
“Your prime minister will hate you six months after you appoint him,” Sarkozy, now godfather of the French right, recently told Macron, according to Le Point magazine. “If you sack him, he’ll hate you even more. And the new one will hate you in six months too.”
Macron came from the centre-left but now claims to be above the left-right divide. Philippe was long a chief aide to the former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé. He withdrew from the right-wing party Les Républicains when he was appointed, but has refused to join Macron’s La République en Marche. Though he is currently identified with no political party, Philippe says he belongs on the right.
Macron and Philippe differ little on policy issues, though the Macronist faction which came from the Socialist left blame Philippe for attempting to reduce the speed limit and enacting an unpopular carbon tax, measures that precipitated the 2018-2019 gilets jaunes revolt.
Left-leaning Macron supporters want the president to adopt more social and environmental policies following the pandemic, and they are encouraging Macron to replace Philippe with someone who embodies those concerns.
Philippe has been faultless in his loyalty to Macron. When asked about their working relationship at a press conference last month, Philippe replied, “There has been much trust and fluidity in our relationship in a way that has rarely occurred before. It’s still the case and I hope it will always be the case.”
Macron lost his absolute majority in the National Assembly during the pandemic, when 17 deputies broke off to form their own parliamentary group. They are seen as sympathetic to Philippe, who denies having anything to do with it.
Macron said in April that he would “reinvent” the last two years of his term after the Covid-19 epidemic. He may explain how in a televised address on Sunday evening.
There is widespread speculation regarding a change of prime minister, or at least a significant cabinet reshuffle, after nationwide municipal elections later this month.
Philippe is the leading candidate for his old job of mayor in the Channel town of Le Havre, where a deputy replaced him when he became prime minister. Macron’s LREM is slated for defeat in Paris, Lyon and Marseille, and it is hard to imagine him firing Philippe if he wins.
Either way, Macron faces a dilemma. If Philippe leaves Matignon to return to Le Havre, he will be regarded as a presidential candidate in waiting. And if he remains in office, he might nonetheless threaten Macron, just as Macron challenged François Hollande, the president who made him an adviser and cabinet minister.