PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron shuffled prime ministers on Friday, removing the most popular member of his government and a potential rival in a bid to get a fresh start in the wake of a coronavirus outbreak that has hit France hard.
Mr. Macron traded in his prime minister of three years, Édouard Philippe, for a relatively unknown technocrat, Jean Castex, who has helped guide France out of the health emergency.
But the president has taken a chance in distancing himself from Mr. Philippe: The outgoing prime minister is the only French political leader to emerge from the health crisis with sharply enhanced credibility. By pushing out Mr. Philippe, Mr. Macron is testing the adage that, in politics, it is better to keep one’s rivals close at hand.
Mr. Macron made the move in the face of an economic emergency brought on by the virus, by his own tenuous public support and by a surge in popularity for Green parties in local voting last Sunday.
But Mr. Castex is not an environmentalist nor a leftist, suggesting Mr. Macron was not cowed by the election results nor by demands that he change his pro-business stance. The contemptuous reactions of French Greens and Socialists to Friday’s news suggested as much.
By appointing Mr. Castex, the low-profile mayor of a modest town in the French Pyrenees who has shaped France’s so far successful strategy to ease lockdown restrictions, Mr. Macron is signaling that he is looking ahead. In doing so he is butting up against public opinion, though, as a new poll revealed this week that nearly 60 percent of the French wanted Mr. Philippe to stay in his post.
That in itself was a problem for Mr. Philippe, as was his recent appearance on the cover of Paris Match as France’s real strongman.
Mr. Macron “is very self-confident, he doesn’t want to be put in the shade by anybody,’’ said Gerald Grunberg, an emeritus political scientist at Sciences Po university. “He doesn’t want to be the president of Edouard Philippe’s government.”
Replacing prime ministers, like firing managers in baseball, is a well-established tradition for modern French presidents looking to create new energy. Mr. Macron, 42, has two years to go in a rocky five-year term that has been marked by social unrest, some economic progress and, now, a shaky business outlook. G.D.P. is expected to drop 11 to 13 percent this year.
For weeks, speculation about the fate of Mr. Philippe — who served an unusually long spell for a French prime minister — had swirled in the news media and in political circles.
Mr. Macron had been expected to reshape his cabinet after the coronavirus dealt a heavy blow to France, hoping to give his government a fresh mandate in the last stretch of a five-year term that ends in 2022.
“There had to be a new signal, a new conquest of the French, because we’ve lost so many,” said Patrick Vignal, a parliamentary deputy in Mr. Macron’s party from southern France. “So Emmanuel Macron was right to turn tables and name a new prime minister.”
Mr. Grunberg noted that polls suggested Mr. Philippe could be the only political figure with enough standing to take on Mr. Macron in two years. Not a single other serious potential challenger has emerged on either the right or the left.
Yet by the telling of the Élysée Palace, the seat of the French presidency, the parting was cordial, and the choice of Mr. Castex a natural one because he was seen as transcending the right-left divide, an intense focus of Mr. Macron.
Mr. Castex, 55, is a graduate of the same elite finishing school for technocrats, the E.N.A., or National Management School, as both Mr. Macron and Mr. Philippe. Yet Mr. Macron’s supporters on Friday portrayed Mr. Castex as a son of the soil.
“Jean Castex represents the Old World, a rural elected official who has had to face real problems,” Mr. Vignal said. “He’s a graduate of E.N.A., sure, but he’s got his feet in the muck, and his head in the stars.”
Later on Friday, the Élysée announced that Mr. Philippe, who was re-elected mayor of Le Havre last weekend, would be given a new role in helping shape Mr. Macron’s Republic on the Move political movement.
The reshuffle came the same day that French prosecutors announced that Mr. Philippe was one of three current or former officials under investigation for possible mishandling of the coronavirus crisis. But the process is in a very preliminary stage and might not lead to formal charges or trial.
France is still dealing with the aftermath of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which has led to nearly 30,000 deaths in the country. France fared worse than Germany in deaths and cases, but considerably better than its northern and southern neighbors, including Britain.
The shake-up was all the more expected after a strong showing by Green parties in France’s municipal elections last week, which intensified pressure on Mr. Macron to change his governing team. Mr. Macron’s party failed to field serious candidates in any of the major cities, a sign of its grass-roots weakness, and the Greens took Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg.
Unlike many of its European neighbors, France has a system of government in which the president, elected directly by the French people, is the head of the executive branch and is usually the main policy driver. The prime minister and cabinet are accountable to Parliament, but are appointed by the president and responsible for day-to-day governing.
Mr. Philippe had won plaudits and popularity as a calm, steady presence during the initial wave of the virus. Where Mr. Macron lectured his countrymen in lofty, lengthy and martial declarations about France’s state of “war,” Mr. Philippe delivered unvarnished facts. He laid out the steps toward easing the country’s lockdown without sugarcoating the challenges or exaggerating the dangers.
In an interview on Thursday with France’s regional press, Mr. Macron praised Mr. Philippe for helping him carry out “important historic reforms in circumstances that were often very hard” and said they had a special “relationship of trust.”
“I will have choices to make to lead the new way,” Mr. Macron said of a cabinet reshuffle. He said that “there will be a new team,” suggesting that much of the cabinet could disappear along with Mr. Philippe.
Mr. Philippe, 49, was a relatively unknown mayor of Le Havre, a port town in northern France, when Mr. Macron appointed him prime minister in 2017. He helped shepherd some of Mr. Macron’s most important and contested legislative efforts, especially the fiercely fought overhaul of France’s crazy-quilt pension system, which is still in the works. But Mr. Philippe is much more a man of France’s traditional right.
“People like Edouard Philippe are very attached to balanced budgets,” said Mr. Grunberg, the political scientist. “Macron is not like that,”
Orignially published in NYT.