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Edouard Philippe … Most Prominent Chess Piece in Macron’s Game | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe. (AFP)

Paris – The appointment of Edouard Philippe, mayor of the French coastal city of Le Havre in the Normandy region, as the prime minister of the first government under new President Emmanuel Macron did not come as a surprise.

This politician, who abandoned his parliamentary seat to dedicate himself to the service of his city, which is France’s top container port and ranks second after Marseille in maritime activity, was the right man at the right place. Macron was seeking a new and young prime minister, who has not been worn down by politics or marred in scandal.

He wanted a man from the right, who could be the symbol or embodiment of his political philosophy and the “En Marche!” movement that seeks to go beyond the left and right altogether.

Macron began his political career in the Socialist Party. He was the economic aide of former President Francois Hollande and then became assistant secretary of the presidential palace before being appointed as economy minister in Manuel Valls’ cabinet.

In other words, Marcron did not need a certificate of good behavior from the left because he grew up among it. He instead needed this certificate from the right. Snagging Edouard Philippe from the right Republican Party was good achievement due to this politician’s character and the repercussions his appointment had among the ranks of the right. The naming of Bruno Le Maire, as minister of economy, and Gérald Darmanin, as minister of finance, both members of the right, also had similar repercussions.

These appointments could lead to the fragmentation of the right ahead of the parliamentary elections that are set for June 11 and 18.

A lot has been written about Edouard Philippe. A documentary called “Edouard, mon pote de droite” was even made about him.

The politician has never occupied a ministerial position. He became involved in politics at an early age when he joined the Socialist Party when he was still a student. He became close to the reformists, who were then represented by former Prime Minister Michel Rocard. Eventually however, he started to lean more towards the moderate right and soon became one of the most loyal supporters of former Prime Minister Alain Juppe.

In truth, Macron and Philippe have many points in common. They both hail from Normandy. The former was born in Amiens and the latter in Rouen. They both pursued the same academic path at Sciences Po in Paris and later the National School of Administration (ENA) that produces the administrative and political elite in France.

The two men share almost the same mentality, with Philippe saying of Macron that “he thinks like him almost 90 percent of the time.”

They both practice the same sport: boxing. Macron practiced it for a while before stopping, while Philippe kept at it three times a week until he was named prime minister.

Traditionally, ENA graduates automatically kick off their career at a government post where they either remain or branch out to the private sector. This is the path Macron took, as did Philippe. The former went on to work at the Rothschild bank before working for Hollande, while the latter specialized in public procurement law. Politics soon beckoned however and he joined the team of former Le Havre mayor Antoine Rufenacht, who made Philippe his political heir in the municipal council and in parliament.

Juppe’s Student and Aide

Philippe owes his political rise to Juppe, who used his expertise for the establishment of the Union for a Popular Movement in 2002. The Movement sought to bring together the right and center and ensured the election of Jacques Chirac as president. Philippe served as director of the movement. He preserved his excellent ties with Juppe and when he was appointed environment minister in 2007, Philippe was one of his aides. When Juppe decided to run in the Republican Party primary elections, Philippe was named his spokesman.

Philippe later served in many local posts in his city and region. In 2010, he “inherited” the mayorship of Le Havre from Rufenacht. He was also as a substitute to MP Jean-Yves Besselat and later took his seat in parliament after his death in 2012. Becoming a lawmaker does not mean that he was active in discussions or in presenting draft-laws, but he was among the most active MPs in regards to practical work.

After succeeding Socialist Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, Philippe sought to confirm that he belongs to the right. Voting figures from recent parliamentary sessions revealed that he consistently voted for the right. He even voted against a draft-law presented by Macron when he was economy minister.

In 2016, he voted against the so-called El Khomri law, named after then Labor Minister Myriam El- Khomri who is of Moroccan descent, even though it follows the philosophy of the right in that it reduces the burden on employers and makes it easier for companies to sack employees. It should be noted that Macron vowed to Philippe and Le Maire to prepare a new Labor Law that will be more radical in its changes that the El Khomri Law. The right had said that Khomri’s law “did not go far enough” in reforms.

On the other hand, the new prime minister is criticized for being close to the “nuclear lobby” in France because he had previously worked for the Areva nuclear industries company. He became director of public affairs at the company in 2007, but in effect he was responsible for keeping tabs on lawmakers who supported the nuclear industry and stand against those who opposed it. More than 70 percent of France’s energy is produced by nuclear generators.

During that time, it was said that Philippe opposed environmental-ecological policies and he later rejected the reduction in the country’s dependence on nuclear power. He justified his stances by constantly saying that given the choice between preserving the environment and job opportunities, he would choose the latter.

Philippe, and consequently Macron, came under fire from environmentalists for these stances. The new prime minister could find himself at loggerheads with current Minister of Ecological and Solidary Transition Nicolas Hulot, a fierce defender of the environment and an advocate of France gradually abandoning nuclear power.

Drawing Hulot to join the cabinet was among Macron’s political successes because the minister had previously rejected offers from former President Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy to become a minister.

Despite these reservations, Philippe’s appointment was a “masterstroke” by Macron because he will not only be head of the government, but also the parliamentary majority that the new president is seeking to garner in the upcoming elections. The president is banking that the appointment of three right-wing politicians to head his cabinet, finance and economy ministries will help fragment the ranks of the Republicans and pave the way to reshuffling the French political scene.

Days before the elections, the right-wingers presented a petition calling for “accepting the extended hand” of the president, meaning agreeing to cooperate with him after the polls. Among those right-wingers is Juppe, who believes that France “cannot remain in a constant state of political civil war.”

Political Revamp

Indeed, Macron is seeking to “revamp” the political scene in France and he is hoping that the parliamentary elections will help him achieve this goal. This is possible seeing as he succeeded during his presidential electoral campaign from fragmenting the socialist left by luring its voters. He is seeking to do the same with the right and the Republican leaders have become aware of this. In fact, opinion polls indicate that his renamed “La Republique En Marche” party will win the elections. It remains to be seen whether he will obtain the absolute majority.

Macron therefore believes that having a right-wing prime minister and two right-wing ministers by his side will help ease the crisis of the right-wing voter, who will have to choose between a president who translates his words into actions or remain in the same narrow partisan corner that has proved its inefficiency in the presidential elections.

“La Republique En Marche” has gone so far as to abstain from fielding its own candidates in some electoral districts where right-wingers are running because they had received a pledge that they will join their presidential majority after the elections.

France is therefore drawing near a new electoral challenge after the unprecedented presidential campaign. Philippe has had a major role in this success because he is a main chess piece in the game that Macron plays so well. The prime minister is being sought to be portrayed as the embodiment of the presidential will to alter political practice and pump new blood in it, achieve equality between men and women, allow the civil society to come to power and overcome old trenches and barriers.

Macron wanted his government to be a reflection of his image. He also wanted his prime minister to be new and yet have political experience and be able to lead and oversee the governmental team. The new president has repeatedly said that he wants to return to the classical concept of the presidency whereby the “president presides and the government governs.”

Will Philippe be able to fill this seat and perform his duties? Only the future holds the answer.