France’s new prime minister, Jean Castex, is to unveil his cabinet, three days after President Emmanuel Macron gambled on a reshuffle to reboot his presidency and tighten his grip on government in the run-up to a re-election bid in 2022.
Analysts said Castex, a relatively unknown career bureaucrat and provincial mayor who successfully managed France’s exit from its coronavirus lockdown, needed to move decisively to convince voters he was the right choice for the job.
The 55-year-old was named successor to the popular Édouard Philippe on Friday, as Macron seeks a fresh start with the country facing a deep recession forecast to shrink its economy by 11% and wipe out any gains from his pro-business policies.
The president tweeted on Sunday that he was aiming for a “new path” focused on “reviving the economy, continuing to overhaul social and environmental protections, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty”.
With the Élysée Palace promising “new faces and new talents”, several key ministers could be replaced, including the widely criticised Christophe Castaner at the interior ministry, economic minister Bruno Le Maire and Jean-Yves Le Drian and Florence Parly at foreign affairs and defence.
Environment will also be a key portfolio, given the recent strong performance of the Greens, who seized control of several of France’s biggest cities in last month’s municipal elections.
Observers have said that by replacing Philippe with Castex, who also hails from the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) party, Macron had taken a high-stakes gamble on taking fuller control of government in the final two years of his presidency.
With most of Macron’s efforts since 2017 to create jobs, boost investment and relax labour likely “to be buried by an avalanche of bad news”, the president “has decided, in effect, to be his own prime minister for the last two years of his mandate,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.
Castex, who speaks with a marked south-west accent that the Élysée Palace hopes will connect with ordinary people, “will be the manager and de facto chief of staff, while Macron takes direct control of government in a lightning attempt to create a new record which he can present to the electorate in 2022”, Rahman said.
Bruno Cautrès, a research at the Cevipof thinktank, told French radio the president needed to move fast. “He is 60% through his mandate,” Cautrès said. “He has very little time to translate his policies into concrete differences in people’s daily lives.”
The new prime minister “will have to shift up a gear, especially on the economy, against a likely context this autumn of rising unemployment, young people arriving on the labour market … He has to show this change of prime minister was useful.”
Many analysts had predicted that Macron would choose his new prime minister from the more leftwing, pro-ecology side of French politics, especially after a disappointing performance by his centrist La République en Marche (LREM) party in the elections last month.
Much of the French left feels the president, having promised a politics that was “neither of the right nor of the left”, has drifted rightwards since sweeping to victory in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017.
But centre-right voters have, in the main, applauded his firm handling of the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests and supported LREM in last year’s European election. “He is counting on them, it seems to me, for re-election in 2022,” Jean Garrigues, a political scientist at the University of Orleans, told Agence France-Presse.
LREM failed to win a single big city in the local elections, depriving the president of a powerful local power base before 2022. The most notable win was Philippe’s convincing win in his Normandy bastion of Le Havre, from where he emerged as a potential Macron rival in years to come.
The president’s entourage has hinted that he plans to announce the key policy lines of the remainder of his mandate in a televised address, probably on Bastille Day, 14 July. Castex is likely to leave any detailed announcement to parliament of his government’s programme until the end of next week.