France’s new centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, has appointed the conservative mayor of Le Havre, Édouard Philippe, as prime minister.
Philippe, 46, comes from the center-right faction of Les Républicains – the party led by Nicolas Sarkozy until last year that saw its candidate, François Fillon, knocked out in the first round of the presidential election.
He is seen within his party as a centrist and supported the moderate former prime minister Alain Juppé in the party’s primary race to choose a presidential candidate last year.
As a student, Philippe was briefly an activist for the social democrat line within the French Socialist party before leaving to join the right. He has been a member of parliament for Normandy, where he abstained during the vote to legalize same-sex marriage in France in 2013. He has never held a government post.
The Normandy port city’s mayor shares Macron’s elite educational background – he studied at Paris’s prestigious political science institute Sciences Po, then attended the exclusive Ecole Nationale de l’Administration, the civil service graduate school seen as the production line for the French elite. The son of two teachers, he spent part of his childhood in Bonn in Germany where his father was for a time headteacher of the French lycée.
Philippe, who has worked for the French nuclear company Areva, has also co-authored novels.
The prime minister’s first task will be to lead the fierce battle in the June parliamentary elections to win a majority for Macron’s fledgling political movement, La République En Marche (La REM). Without a majority, Macron would struggle to push through his planned changes to labor laws, pensions, education and the system of unemployment benefits.
The choice of a mayor from the right means some figures from Les Républicains may now jump ship and stand for the parliamentary election under Macron’s banner. This would worsen the divisions inside the fractured French right.
The secretary general of Les Républicains, Bernard Accoyer, reacted coolly to the appointment, saying it was an ambiguous move. “This is an individual decision. It is not a political agreement,” Accoyer said shortly after the announcement.
“Will this new prime minister support the candidates of En Marche! of the president … or will he support the candidates of the Republicans-UDI, the candidates of his own political family?”
Macron, who has set out his own political line as “neither left nor right”, has sought what he calls a “pragmatic” alliance of people from all backgrounds and parties to push through his pro-business reforms. He has sought to benefit from the weakness of France’s traditional left and right governing parties, which were both knocked out of the presidential election at the first round amid anti-establishment anger among voters.
But Macron – who served as economy minister in the outgoing Socialist government of former president François Hollande before resigning last year – has until now attracted dozens of center-left MPs to his movement, and needed to reach out to the right.
Macron, a newcomer to politics who was unknown three years ago, has promised to renew France’s political class and include more women. He is under pressure to ensure a number of women hold senior positions in the new French government to be announced on Tuesday. Macron has previously said his government would be 50% female. His key cabinet and senior adviser positions in the Élysée, announced on Sunday, were all men.
Macron will travel to Berlin on Monday afternoon to meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, to discuss EU reform and kickstart the Franco-German relationship.
It is traditional for French leaders to make Berlin their first European trip, but the pro-European Macron wants to boost the Franco-German motor at the heart of Europe and press for closer cooperation, including creating a parliament and budget for the eurozone.
Sylvie Goulard, a French liberal MEP who has been advising Macron on Europe, said the new president wanted the motor “to accelerate and go back to times when it was more active”.
Goulard, who brokered Macron’s meeting with Merkel in March, said the two countries needed to work together on the economy, defense, climate change and counter-terrorism, against a backdrop of uncertainty. She said: “It is more than ever a message to work together and it is also deeply in the German national interest and the French national interest.”
Tensions are likely to emerge over deepening integration in the eurozone. Macron favors eurobonds, a form of shared debt that Germany again ruled out the day after the French outsider’s stunning victory. Though little eurozone reform is likely until after September’s German elections.
Macron will also be seeking German support for his plans to “relaunch Europe”, described by Goulard as a top priority that involved greater convergence on tax and social policy. “It is clear that you cannot just rely on the winners of the globalization in Europe to make the European project develop further.”
Failing to answer those questions means “we might lose the single market – and this is exactly what is happening in the UK”, she said.
In Berlin, Macron is likely to encounter familiar German concerns about taxpayers being made to pay for debts racked up in other European states. But he also arrives in the capital as a familiar face who has had plenty of opportunities to find areas where Germany’s resolve on fiscal matters is more brittle.
Between 2012 and 2014, as a presidential adviser, Macron was closely involved in Franco-German discussions over how to go about creating deeper economic integration in the core of the eurozone – plans that later stalled because of Hollande’s domestic problems and more urgent diplomatic crises in eastern Ukraine.
What happens if Macron’s party fails to win a majority in parliament?
Emmanuel Macron’s triumph in the presidential election will be worth much less to him if he cannot secure a majority in France’s 577-seat parliament in June.
French presidents appoint the prime minister, chair cabinet meetings, can call referendums and dissolve the national assembly. But they cannot dismiss the government, which determines and runs national policy and answers to parliament.
Preparing new laws and ushering them through parliament is the job of the prime minister, who depends on MPs’ backing. So if a president has a majority, he is effectively head of both state and government. If not, his hands are tied.
Macron has said he plans to pass some urgent reforms “by decree”, but these are really just a means to speed up the process rather than bypass parliament, whose approval each decree will ultimately need.
How well Macron and his candidates fare in June will therefore be crucial, and polls have predicted his party could indeed win an absolute majority. With a plurality of MPs but no overall majority, Macron would have to form a coalition or try to build a majority for each piece of legislation.