Irish Times view on Emmanuel Macron’s cabinet reshuffle
French president may be struggling domestically but is on a roll on the European stage
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the illusion of change, no more. France’s President Emmanuel Macron explained his cabinet reshuffle on Monday in very much these terms. He told journalists that he wanted the government to set out “on a new path” committed to the post-pandemic “economic, social, environmental and cultural reconstruction of the country”. France faces a likely 11 per cent fall in GDP by year- end. But “the new path, it is not spinning around”, he insisted somewhat confusingly. “The direction I headed out on in 2017 is the right one.” Macronism survives with a new mask.
The decision to dispense with Édouard Philippe as prime minister – he led the government competently for three years, steering it through violent street protests and the coronavirus crisis – was less to do with the latter’s competence or commitment to that Macron path, than with his popularity, in danger of eclipsing the president’s lacklustre figures. The appointment of another centre-right PM, low-profile Jean Castex who, like Macron, is a graduate of France’s elite civil service school, should shore up the president’s support on the right in his re-election bid less than two years away. The reshuffle comes just after Macron’s La République en Marche party was soundly beaten by the traditional parties of left and right and by the greens in local elections.
French prime ministers, whose domestic executive authority has diminished over recent decades to ever-encroaching presidents, come and go like this with the changing fortunes and ambitions of their boss although the attempt to pass the blame to PMs has seldom worked in rebooting a president’s popularity. Interior minister Christopher Castaner shared Philippe’s fate, criticised for his handling of anti-government gilets jaunes. However, Macron has left in place several of the big beasts of his government: the finance and foreign ministers remain – Bruno Le Maire, and Jean-Yves le Drian respectively – as well as the health and defence ministers. But he replaced his environment minister with a former green party member.
Macron may be struggling domestically, but on the European stage, where he has been a champion of reform and further integration, he is on a roll. When he met Germany’s Chancellor Merkel in Meseberg at the end of last month, the pair emerged with agreement on a remarkable pandemic recovery initiative that broke with multiple German taboos. Next week’s summit should approve it if Merkel can win over frugal foot-draggers. The French president described the package with some justice as “the most important change in paradigm in Europe in recent years” – testimony to the fact that the Franco-German engine of the EU is definitely back on track just when it is most needed.