Unless you’re a close follower of either French politics or Covid-19 exit strategies (he was in charge of France’s), you’re unlikely to have ever heard of Jean Castex before. But as of last Friday he is prime minister of France, following the resignation of Édouard Philippe, who had held the job for the last three years.
The change was made by president Emanuel Macron following the second round of the French municipal elections, held the previous Sunday, in which – although Philippe himself was successful in Le Havre – government candidates generally performed poorly.
In many ways it’s an uncanny repetition of six years ago, when the then Socialist government of president François Hollande also did badly in municipal elections, resulting in the replacement of prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault with former interior minister Manuel Valls. Oddly enough, Valls and Castex are both Catalans.
But there are differences. Hollande himself was deeply unpopular; there were already doubts about whether he would run again for the presidency. (In the end he chose not to.) He needed a bold stroke: something to shift the narrative decisively. Valls, with a high profile and a reputation for toughness, seemed to fit the bill.
It didn’t work. The government continued to flounder, and when Hollande withdrew and Valls contested the nomination in his place, he was beaten by left-winger Benoît Hamon. Hamon went on to finish a poor fifth to Macron in the election; Valls endorsed Macron and returned to parliament with his support, but subsequently moved to Spain to make a new career in municipal politics in Barcelona.
Nonetheless, it made sense for Hollande to try something dramatic – to associate himself with someone with new ideas. Although it didn’t save Hollande’s presidency, it helped to secure the succession for a broadly centre-left candidate in the shape of Macron.
The latter’s position now is significantly different. For a start, he is a year closer to the next election than Hollande was; he faces the electorate – no-one thinks it likely that he will back out – in April 2022. And while his popularity ratings are not good, they are far from abysmal. His re-election is in no sense a lost cause.
As the 2017 election demonstrated, Hollande’s problem was not just personal, it was also a party problem. The Socialist Party is used to having a strong base in local government; poor performance at that level (from which it has now recovered only slightly) was a clear sign of trouble. Macron’s party, Republic on the Move (LRM), is much more a personal vehicle. It fell below expectations in the municipalities, but expectations were never very high to begin with.
So Macron has taken to some extent the opposite lesson from Hollande. Instead of a strong personality, he has chosen a relative unknown in order to more forcefully stamp his own imprint on the government. He wants a loyal lieutenant in the prime minister’s job, and that’s evidently what he expects Castex to be.
Although Macron comes from the centre-left, Castex, like Philippe, started out on the centre-right. The president is therefore continuing his policy of not tilting the government too far in either direction. What he most needs to ensure for 2022 is that neither centre-left nor centre-right is able to build up a sufficient mass of support to force its way into the second round against the far right (or even against each other).
Despite LRM’s poor performance, the municipal elections were not a bad sign in that regard. On the centre-right the Republicans showed little sign of a broad-based recovery, while the gains on the centre-left mostly went to the Greens, further complicating the problem of settling on a single left candidate.
This, then, is not the occasion for a large-scale reinvention. Macron’s gamble is that the new government will do well enough to reflect credit directly on him, enabling him to hold the centre ground. But even if that leads to re-election in two year’s time, the weakness of his party may force him into some uncomfortable compromises in his second term.