By Peter Hourston
As widely anticipated following the poor results of his La République En Marche (LREM) party in recent local elections, French President Emmanuel Macron “accepted the resignation” of the government under Prime Minister Edouard Phillipe and replaced him with the little known bureaucrat Jean Castex. The new cabinet will have the herculean task of ‘reinventing’ both France’s embattled Head of State in the run-up to the next presidential election in 2022 and the economy in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
A brief explanation of the French constitution is needed first, however. Under the Fifth Republic France has a ‘semi-presidential’ political system with a dual-headed executive. The President of the French Republic is Head of State and is directly elected by the people every five years. The President has certain executive powers in ‘reserved’ policy areas such as in foreign affairs, commander-in-chief of the military and culture. The President has a lot of power, owing to their popular mandate, immunity from prosecution and must select the Prime Minister, who is Head of Government. The Prime Minister must have the confidence of the National Assembly, runs the day-to-day conduct of the government and leads the political majority in Parliament.
An analogy to a VIP and a chauffeur can help explain this curious constitutional relationship. The President is the VIP sitting in the back of the limousine and the Prime Minister is the chauffeur, chosen by the VIP, to drive the car which is the government. The President decides the destination of the journey, but the Prime Minister must plot the route, choosing when to brake, steer, change course and so on. If the car crashes then the President (sitting in the back seat, which is safer) can walk away unscathed, buy a new limousine and find a new driver. If something serious goes wrong for the President then the Prime Minister can take the flak and resign. The President is always top dog – and the Prime Minister knows this when taking on the job. All French Presidents have had more than one Prime Minister in their term – bar Nicholas Sarkozy who kept François Fillon for the full five years, of which more later.
This takes us back to the current situation with Macron and Phillipe. Speculation of the future of Phillipe began to arise as early as January in the midst of the controversial pension reforms which resulted in nationwide strikes. Phillipe added to this speculation by running – successfully – to be the mayor of the city of Le Havre on the Normandy coast. Holding more than one office is not unusual in French politics – the new prime minister is also mayor of Prades in the Pyrénées – and will allow Phillipe to keep his career alive now that Macron has dispensed with his services in government.
However, Phillipe was not fired in the way French Prime Ministers are usually dismissed – to accept the blame for political failure. Au contraire, unusually in the history of the Fifth Republic, Phillipe has found himself significantly more popular than his boss, owing to his calm and competent handling of the acute stage of the COVID-19 crisis, in contrast to Macron’s aloof and hyperbolic interventions. Macron is therefore taking a risk in getting rid of his well-liked former prime minister.
So, what to make of Jean Castex? Like his predecessor, Castex is from the centre-right Les Républicains, was educated at the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration (l’ENA) and has a much lower national profile than his predecessor. Following the strong performance of left-leaning green and ecological parties in the recent municipal elections it had been widely speculated that Macron would choose to a prime minister of the left to reconnect with the former Socialist party voters who propelled him the Elysée three years ago. However, the fact that Castex was deputy chief-of-staff to Nicholas Sarkozy suggests that Macron will try and consolidate himself on the right, albeit with a more environmental tinge.
Macron declared himself to be neither of the left nor the right in his famous victory three years ago. However, this masks a complex picture, which takes us back to the longest President/Prime Minister partnership since the start of the present republic in 1958: that of Nicholas Sarkozy and François Fillon between 2007 and 2012. Sarkozy had a ‘hyper-presidency’ where he effectively side-lined his prime minister and ran his government using hand-picked advisors (including one M. Castex) from the Elysée. Sarkozy had expected to fight the 2012 election against Dominique Strauss-Khan, until, in the notorious ‘DSK affair’, the former IMF chief and finance minister was arrested in New York on the account of rape. Instead, Sarkozy lost to the uninspiring François Hollande, a Socialist insider on the right of his party. Hollande managed to win, however, by attracting voters to the left of him, revolted by the ‘bling-bling’ excess of Sarkozysm. Despite this left-wing mandate, Hollande led a socially liberal economic policy under the technocratic Prime Minister Manuel Valls and his ambitious young Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron. The result? In a humiliating failure, Hollande had the ignominy of being the first President in the Fifth Republic not to seek re-election. As late as the summer of 2016 – less than a year before France went to the polls – Hollande was determined to fight on against his likely opponent from the right, ex-PM François Fillon, and was dismissive of Macron, who had recently resigned and launched his own political party En Marche! However, in a dramatic turn of events, Fillon was accused of misappropriating public funds by giving members of his family, including his Welsh wife Penelope, high paid jobs that did not actually involve any work. Only this week Fillon was given a five-year jail sentence (suspended for three years) for paying his wife €1.156 million to do work which never occurred. The Fillons deny the charges and are appealing.
Why does all this matter? Had it not been for the ‘Fillon affair’, Emmanuel Macron would not have won the 2017. François Hollande would also not have been elected without the DSK scandal in 2012. The lesson is, the two most recent French Presidents were chance outsiders a year before their respective elections, before spectacular events brought the demise of their rivals. There are nearly two more years before Macron is up for re-election. What is also more important in the light of Macron’s reshuffle is where he positions himself over the course of these next two years. Both Hollande and Macron have governed significantly to the right of where many of their electors are – Macron consolidated most of the old Socialist Party vote in the first round before unifying the left, centre and centre right to defeat the extreme-right Marine Le Pen in run-off in 2017. Macron is vulnerable on the left and the choice of Jean Castex does nothing to ameliorate this. LREM is seen is a right-wing party and Macron looks more likely to try and consolidate his new pro-business and middle-class supporters than return to his old soft left base. However, the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis and the gains made by environmental focused parties in the local elections demonstrates the appeal of left-leaning parties. It is still too early to write-off his re-election hopes now but Emmanuel Macron’s political survival is far from guaranteed.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist.