Could the next president of France be the man Macron just let go?

Edouard Philippe had broad popular support while the President struggles to rise above an approval rating of 30 per cent

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, speaks with French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe as they attend a meeting with President of Senate Gerard Larche, House speaker Richard Ferrand and President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), Patrick Bernasconi at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday July, 2 2020. (Ian Langsdon, Pool via AP)
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Tall, lean and sporty, Edouard Philippe stood head and shoulders above the French President Emmanuel Macron, whose centrist government he led as prime minister.

The differing physical statures were matched in the opinion polls. Despite the Covid-19 crisis, itself following more than a year of restlessness on the streets during protests against austerity and pension reform, Mr Philippe retained broad popular support while the President struggled to rise above an approval rating of 30 per cent.

Despite persistent reports of discord with Mr Macron, the President's willingness to lose a right-hand man commanding support on both left and right raised eyebrows

But in what seems an extraordinary gamble with less than two years of his five-year term to run, Mr Macron has allowed – perhaps encouraged – his able lieutenant to stand down.

Whether he was pushed or chose to jump, Mr Philippe has returned to familiar local territory to serve as mayor of the north-western port of Le Havre after municipal elections that saw candidates associated with the President or his La Republique En Marche! party – which the outgoing premier chose not to join – otherwise fared badly.

His departure was sealed in a tumultuous week in French politics, with three prime ministers dominating the news agenda even as the President contemplated his strategy for recovery from the economic impact of Covid-19.

For one of the trio, Francois Fillon – who might well have beaten Mr Macron to the presidency in 2017 but for revelations that he paid a fortune from public funds to his wife for allegedly fictitious work on his behalf – there was the ignominy of a jail sentence for embezzlement. Then came Mr Philippe's resignation and his replacement by a largely unknown technocrat, Jean Castex.

The downfall of the centre-right Mr Fillon, who remains free pending appeal, was beyond the President’s control. But Mr Macron’s thinking unquestionably influenced change at the Matignon, the official prime ministerial residence in Paris, and the outcome could have important repercussions.

With his elegantly coiffed beard, recently discoloured on one side by a skin condition, Mr Philippe cut a distinctive figure by the President’s side, combining the pugnaciousness of a man whose private passion is amateur boxing and a serenity sometimes likened to “British phlegm”, a rare trait in French politics.

Despite persistent reports of discord with Mr Macron during the final months of their partnership, the President's willingness to lose a right-hand man commanding support on both left and right raised eyebrows. However, the newspaper Liberation suggests that the popularity gap between the two men may perversely have hastened the rupture, seen by Macronists as a logical, even necessary step as the President prepares his "new way" to lead France out of a grave economic downturn.

The revamped presidential project has already brought a ministerial reshuffle giving women a majority of cabinet seats. Out goes the tough, unpopular Christophe Castaner, bete noire of both the Gilets Jaunes protest movement and also the overstretched police forces who had to deal with uproar on the streets only to be accused of isolated violence of their own. Mr Castaner is succeeded by Gerald Darmanin, a young career politician from a modest family background that includes Maltese Jewish and Algerian roots.

In a more surprising appointment, Eric Dupond-Moretti, a celebrated defence lawyer known as “the king of acquittals” but having no experience of political office, becomes Justice Minister.

According to those rationalising Mr Macron’s split with Mr Philippe, the reform-hungry President saw him as loyal and trustworthy but too reluctant to ruffle feathers in pursuit of the changes, sometimes painful, he considers essential to France’s future.

Edouard Philippe, France's former prime minister, reacts during a handover ceremony at the Hotel de Matignon, the official residence of the French prime minister, in Paris, France, on Friday, July 3, 2020. Emmanuel Macron asked his prime minister, Edouard Philippe, and his government to resign on Friday as the French president seeks a fresh start after a disastrous municipal election last month. Photographer: Jeanne Frank/Bloomberg
Edouard Philippe, France's former prime minister, walks away after the handover ceremony at the Hotel de Matignon, the official residence of the French prime minister, in Paris, France, on July 3. Bloomberg

Beyond the need for Europe to address post-pandemic issues, and nurse the festering sore of fractious Brexit negotiations between Britain and the European Union, domestic affairs seem certain to preoccupy French politics in the short term.

Mr Macron relishes his appearances on the international stage. But his only trip outside Europe during the pandemic was to the Mauritanian capital Nouakchott in late June, for talks with African allies on the fight against extremism in the vast Sahel band stretching from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.

At home, a long-awaited major initiative, first mooted by the President in early 2018, on how Islam in France should be organised without deviating from France's secular values, has still to be delivered. It now seems a distant concern.

One key question is whether Mr Philippe might be lured back to his political home. Until his appointment as prime minister, he belonged to the party of the mainstream centre-right, Les Republicains, and it is currently difficult to identify a more effective challenger from that source should he seek nomination for the 2022 presidential campaign.

Much depends on the performance of his successor. Mr Castex, 55, also arrives from the centre-right and previously served as a senior aide to a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Like Mr Philippe and Mr Macron, he is a product of Ecole Nationale d’Administration, an elite college whose graduates customarily glide into high-flying careers. But he rejects notions of privilege and cheerfully points out that he has twice been elected mayor of Prades, a southern town with socialist leanings.

He shares the President’s reforming zeal and has won praise as “Monsieur Deconfinement”, responsible for France’s approach to ending lockdown. Mr Castex also shows little problem with Mr Macron’s distaste for the openness that characterised the socialist presidency of Francois Hollande. “I am looking for results, not the limelight,” he says.

How he can unite a bitterly divided country remains open to doubt. The Socialists were invited to join Mr Macron's reshuffled government but declined. The Greens did spectacularly well in the local elections, taking power in a number of large cities. But they regard as little more than a sop the elevation of a former member, Barbara Pompili, to head a "super-ministry" for ecological transition.

And there remains the spectre of a far right led by Marine Le Pen, a constant thorn in mainstream politicians’ flesh. If French electors ignore global issues and decide their next president based on what is happening at home, they may also have to choose whether the most attractive alternative to Ms Le Pen is Mr Macron – or the man he has just let go.

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National and writes from France and Britain