Emmanuel Macron may have won the French presidency promising to honor France’s diversity, but his choice of Prime Minister suggests he’s more comfortable surrounded by people like himself.
The new 39 year-old president said he had chosen Edouard Philippe, a lawyer who is currently mayor of the port city of Le Havre in Normandy, to lead the implementation of his agenda to overhaul France’s economy and restore its diminished status within the Eurozone.
It’s a choice that reflects the balancing act Macron faces after what some say was a deceptively large run-off victory over the right-wing populist Marine Le Pen earlier in the month. Macron had promised a government of “neither left nor right” after that victory, but might more accurately have said “both left and right”—while Macron was economy minister under the Socialist administration of Francois Hollande, Philippe is from the center-right, a protégé of Républicain grandee Alain Juppé, elected on the Républicain ticket.
Macron’s most pressing task, as the man who broke up the Socialist Party by forming his own movement, is to broaden his base and build a centrist coalition that can push controversial reforms through the new parliament. In theory, Philippe fits the bill nicely. But the reaction of Philippe’s party shows how difficult that’s going to be in practice: Parties are built on loyalty, not opportunism.
“This is not in any way a case of governmental coalition, but a personal decision. We regret it,” tweeted Bernard Accoyer, General Secretary of Les Républicains. “He is putting himself outside our political family.” (The general tone of sniffiness may owe something to the fact that Philippe started his political life as a Socialist, only later changing his allegiance to the center-right.) The Républicains have already made it clear they intend to oppose Macron’s party, La République en Marche, at the legislative elections on June 11/18.
Philippe’s political closeness to Juppé makes it highly likely that the center-right will ultimately act more pragmatically when it comes to supporting Macron’s agenda—especially since the key parts on cutting the budget deficit and the burden on business are essentially lifted from its playbook.
Macron started building bridges with the right in his inauguration speech on Sunday, calling on France to summon the “spirit of concord to build profound change.” He knew full well that in a country with a habit of revolting violently against it, profound change will only be possible with a big and stable majority in parliament—and that means at least a degree of support from the Républicains.
“The PM must have two principal qualities: trust and complementarity,” tweeted François Bayrou, a center-right politician who was among the first to back Macron (after giving up his own presidential candidacy). And that’s what Philippe offers: he’s the mirror image of Macron himself: at 46, he’s young (at least by the standards of prime ministers) and a graduate of the elite École Nationale d’Administration that churns out French rulers as regularly as Goldman Sachs churns out treasury secretaries.
And, like the Rothschild alum Macron, Philippe has past employment in business that suggests he’s anything but a rebel breaking up France’s establishment from outside: He was head of public affairs for the state-controlled nuclear fuel group Areva from 2007 to 2010.
Macron, who like Donald Trump won the presidency with his first run at public office, can at least argue that his choice reflects the need to have some experienced operators around. And although Philippe has ample experience of real-world politics at regional level, and some also at national level under Juppé, he is by no means an over-familiar face at national level.
Moreover, the list of candidates for the legislative elections that Macron announced last week showed at least serious intent in delivering that promise of renewal. Out of 428 candidates for his newly formed party La République en March, exactly half are women, only 5% are current lawmakers (all of them elected on the Socialist Party ticket in 2012), and the average age is 46 (just like Philippe himself), compared to an average age of 60 for sitting deputies, according to the website of Le Parisien.