Édouard Philippe is the perfect fit to be Emmanuel Macron’s Premier Minister. A one-time Socialist who then switched to the centre-right Les Républicains, the 46-year-old mirrors the ambiguity of his president. Philippe has been the mayor of the northern port town of Le Havre since 2010 and the region’s MP for the last five years.
Since his accession to the presidency last week, Macron has rechristened his party, La République en Marche [LRM], and in nominating Philippe as his PM he’s hoping to send a message to the country that he really is a centrist president who ‘is neither left, nor right’. When his party unveiled 428 of its parliamentary candidates for next month’s legislative elections, there was a centre-left bent to the list; picking Philippe will, Macron hopes, balance the scales and persuade centre-right voters and politicians to join his movement.
At the moment his party has no representatives and to form a majority LRM needs to win 290 seats in the Assembly; failure to do so would force Macron to seek a coalition with one of the other parties, probably Les Républicains, who haven’t imploded in quite the same manner as the National Front and the Socialist Party. So what better way than to try, in the words of Le Figaro‘s Tuesday editorial, to ‘dynamite’ his strongest opponent than by choosing one of their own for his PM?
Philippe is a clone of his president, a product of the political system, who attended ENA [École nationale d’administration], the finishing school for French technocrats, and shares Macron’s love of literature. The pair are also confirmed Europhiles with an affection in particular for Germany; Philippe attended a secondary school in Bonn, and speaks the language fluently. According to Macron’s spokesperson, Benjamin Griveaux, the new PM and his president ‘like each other’s intellectual honesty and rigour’.
Both like to think they represent a new era for French politics; just as New Labour tried to reinvent Britain in the late 1990s with the guitar-playing, football-loving Tony Blair as the poster boy for ‘Cool Britannia’, we can expect something similar from Macron and Philippe. Not for Macron the extravagance of some of his predecessors, as he demonstrated during Sunday’s investiture by wearing a suit that cost a modest €450. Political correspondents knew that detail because it was texted to them by the president’s advisers.
Social media and Macron are a marriage made in heaven. Last week he tweeted a distinctly un-presidential selfie of his campaign team, while shortly after Philippe’s appointment a photograph was published on Instagram authenticating his street credentials. It was taken last year and shows Philippe (the third youngest PM in the history of the Fifth Republic) wearing sunglasses and holding a spray canister as he takes lessons in graffiti from the famous French street artist Jace.
Defending his decision to join Macron’s party during a television interview on Monday evening, Philippe said ‘there was so much anger in France’ that it was the right moment ‘to try something that has never been tried before’.
This anger was manifested in the first round of last month’s election by the seven million people who voted for Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the far-left candidate, and the 7.7 million who cast their vote for Marine Le Pen’s National Front. Macron recognises that he is unlikely to win over these people so his strategy is to persuade the ‘reasonable people’ to vote for his party; in other words, the men and women who in the past have voted for the centre-left and centre-right.
That might win him seats in the National Assembly but it’s likely to fuel the anger of those on the fringes of French society who feel threatened by Macron’s promise to reform their country. ‘The old world has returned,’ mocked Mélenchon on Twitter, while Philippe’s appointment brought Marine Le Pen out of hiding after a week spent licking her wounds. Describing Macron as the ‘perfect synthesis of the two previous presidencies,’ Le Pen added that LRM is ‘the holy alliance of the old right and left.’
Philippe will unveil his government on Tuesday evening and it’s expected to include one or two surprises. Macron is certainly shaking up French politics but the world is waiting to see if he stands firm when the streets start to fill with the ‘unreasonable’ people.