France’s centrist president, Emmanuel Macron, has appointed a prime minister from the right to lead his bid for a parliamentary majority in June’s elections and push through his plans to loosen strict labor laws.
Édouard Philippe, 46, the mayor of the Normandy port town Le Havre, comes from Les Républicains, the party that was headed by Nicolas Sarkozy until last year and whose candidate, François Fillon, was knocked out in the first round of the presidential election.
Philippe supported Alain Juppé, the moderate, centre-right former prime minister, in the party’s presidential primary race last year.
His appointment is seen as a strategic move by the French president to destabilize the already divided French right and win over right wing politicians to his La République en Marche (La REM) movement.
Macron, who served as economy minister under the Socialist former president François Hollande, has attracted dozens of centre-left MPs to his new movement and needed to reach out to the right. The move was also calculated to lure parliamentary hopefuls from Les Républicains as a way of securing the majority he needs to enact his manifesto promises to provide more flexibility for business.
Taking office at the grandiose prime minister’s residence of Le Hôtel Matignon, Philippe stated pointedly: “I am a man of the right”, but added that he respected politicians on the left and was driven by “the greater good”.
His appointment is a blow to Les Républicains, who have been trying to regroup after the presidential vote and prevent defections to Macron’s camp.
Party officials insisted Philippe’s move was strictly a personal decision, but about 20 MPs broke ranks and issued a statement urging Les Républicains and centre-right allies to accept Macron’s “outstretched hand”, saying the right needed to “take the full measure of the political transformation taking place before their eyes”.
Philippe was born in Rouen in Normandy and based his political career in Le Havre, where his grandfather was a docker. The son of two teachers, he speaks German and spent part of his childhood in Bonn when his father was the headteacher of the French lycée. He comes from the same university background as Macron: he studied at Paris’s prestigious, political science institute, Sciences Po, then attended the exclusive École Nationale d’Administration, the civil service graduate school seen as a factory of the French elite.
As a student, Philippe was briefly a social democrat activist within the French Socialist party before moving to the right. He has never held a government post and is relatively little-known outside his fiefdom in the north, which helps Macron present him as a new face as part of his promise to renew politics.
Philippe has veered between politics and the private sector including working for an American law firm and holding a senior position at the French nuclear company Areva.
The French left and the Greens reacted to the appointment by saying he was too right wing and not focused enough on green issues, citing his time working in the nuclear industry. The government lineup, which will be announced on Tuesday, will show exactly what importance Macron intends to place on environmental issues.
Philippe has co-authored two novels set in the political sphere. One, published 10 years ago, described the French prime minister’s office and residence of Matignon as “a type of hell: golden, sought after by many and satisfying for the ego, but hell nonetheless”. He described a prime minister quickly “submerged” and drowning under “a mass of information”.
Although he has been a longstanding advocate of what Macron has defined as a new form of pragmatic “neither left nor right politics”, Philippe was sometimes critical during the campaign in columns written for the leftwing daily Libération. He said Macron had impressed with his “power of seduction and reformist rhetoric” but that it was wrong to compare him to John F Kennedy who “had more charisma”.
As a member of parliament for Normandy, Philippe abstained during the vote to legalize same-sex marriage in France in 2013, and the feminist group Osez Le Féminisme has complained that he abstained in 2014 on a vote for a sweeping gender equality law.
Macron is now under pressure to ensure that he fulfills his promise to appoint more women to senior positions in the new government. Macron said half of the ministers would be women but his key cabinet and senior adviser positions in the Elysée, announced on Sunday, were all men.