June 29, 2020
Édouard Philippe - mayor or prime minister?
A couple of lessons from France's municipal elections may be relevant at the national level. One is that environmentalists surprised by winning 9 large cities, including Lyon, Bourdeaux and Strasbourg. They even came very close to winning in Lille and Toulouse. This is a historic victory for the Greens, and a substantial increase compared with only one city won last time. It also bears witness that green policy can still be a vote winner after the lockdown. The second important result is the strong showing by Édouard Philippe, who won Le Havre with nearly 60%. The media seems sold on the idea that his days are now counted as prime minister. Why?
With only 22 months to go until the next presidential elections, Emmanuel Macron is preparing his re-election bid which is due to be unveiled early next week. A government reshuffle is expected, and Philippe is now a prominent head that may have to go.
To us it seems cynical that the one candidate actually winning an election would lose his job as prime minister, where he also gained popularity due to his level-headed management of the Covid-19 crisis. Philippe, meanwhile, plays the loyalty card and shows no resistance to an eventual departure from Matignon. It is the president who decides, he tells the press with a smile. Very smooth, and obviously not credible.
Such a move would be a high-risk gamble for Macron. How would he explain to the French that the man with whom he had such a close relationship had to go, just at the time when he emerged out of Macron's shadow with his own profile and a popularity greater than that of the president? As mayor of Le Havre, Philippe could become a serious contender against Macron in 2022. Macron himself knows this risk well. In 2017 he displaced François Hollande, whom he had served as a minister before.
But, if Philippe were to stay as prime minister, it could feed a narrative that Macron is too weak to allow his popular prime minister to go. This seems to be a dilemma one can only find in French politics. To avoid those high-risk narratives and a political backlash, Macron's team is looking for a more solid case for Philippe's departure.
We can think of one good reason, which is that Philippe may not be the right man for Macron's new agenda, with his conservative background and known resistance to Macron's citizen initiatives. Without knowing the new agenda it is hard to find a robust case for Philippe's departure. Today, the two men will meet, likely to find more clarity about Philippe's future as prime minister.