France's new prime minister keeps key figures in reshuffled cabinet

France's new prime minister keeps key figures in reshuffled cabinet

Jean Castex retains foreign affairs, finance and health ministers but replaces interior minister criticised over gilets jaunes protests.

France’s new prime minister, Jean Castex, has made few major changes to the cabinet after President Emmanuel Macron gambled on a reshuffle to reboot his presidency and tighten his grip on government before seeking re-election in 2022.

The Élysée Palace had promised “new faces and talents”, but key ministers from the outgoing government stayed, including the centre-right Bruno Le Maire at economic affairs and finance and Jean-Yves Le Drian, a former Socialist, at foreign affairs.

Health minister Olivier Véran, who helped lead France’s response to the pandemic, also kept his job, as did Florence Parly at defence.

But the interior minister, Christophe Castaner, widely criticised for his handling of the anti-government gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protest and protests over police brutality, was replaced by accounts minister Gérald Darmanin.

An MP from Macron’s centrist La République en Marche (LREM) party, Barbara Pompili, was promoted to the environment portfolio, a major priority for the last two years of Macron’s term, and a high-profile criminal defence lawyer was appointed to justice.

Analysts said Castex, a relatively unknown career bureaucrat and provincial mayor who successfully ran France’s exit from its coronavirus lockdown, would now need to move decisively to convince voters he was the right choice for the job.

The 55-year-old was named successor to the popular Édouard Philippe on Friday as Macron seeks a fresh start. The country faces a deep recession forecast to shrink its economy by 11%, wiping out any gains from the pro-business reforms he pushed through in the first three years of his term.

The president tweeted on Sunday that he was aiming for a “new path” focused on “reviving the economy, continuing to overhaul social and environmental protections, re-establishing a fair republican order and defending European sovereignty”.

Observers have said that by replacing Philippe with Castex, who also hails from the centre-right Les Républicains (LR) party, Macron had taken a high-stakes gamble on taking fuller control of government in the final two years of his presidency.

With most of Macron’s efforts since 2017 to create jobs, boost investment and relax labour likely “to be buried by an avalanche of bad news”, the president “has decided, in effect, to be his own prime minister for the last two years of his mandate”, said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy.

Castex, who speaks with a marked south-west accent that the Élysée Palace hopes will connect with ordinary people, “will be the manager and de facto chief of staff, while Macron takes direct control of government in a lightning attempt to create a new record which he can present to the electorate in 2022”, Rahman said.

Bruno Cautrès, a researcher at the Cevipof thinktank, told French radio the president needed to move fast. “He is 60% through his mandate,” Cautrès said. “He has very little time to translate his policies into concrete differences in people’s daily lives.”

The new prime minister “will have to shift up a gear, especially on the economy, against a likely context this autumn of rising unemployment, young people arriving on the labour market … He has to show this change of prime minister was useful.”

Many analysts had predicted that Macron would choose his new prime minister from the more leftwing, pro-ecology side of French politics, especiallyafter a disappointing LREM performance in local elections last month.

Much of the French left feels the president, having promised a politics that was “neither of the right nor of the left”, has drifted rightwards since sweeping to victory in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017.

But centre-right voters have, in the main, applauded his firm handling of the gilets jaunes protests and supported LREM in last year’s European election. “He is counting on them, it seems to me, for re-election in 2022,” Jean Garrigues, a political scientist at the University of Orleans, told Agence France-Presse.

LREM failed to win a single major municipality in the local elections, with the Greens seizing control of several of France’s biggest cities, depriving the president of a powerful local power base before 2022. The most notable win was Philippe’s convincing victory in his Normandy bastion of Le Havre, from where he could emerge as a potential Macron rival in years to come.

The president’s entourage has hinted that he plans to announce the key policy lines of the remainder of his mandate in a televised address, probably on Bastille Day, 14 July. Castex is likely to leave any detailed announcement to parliament of his government’s programme until the end of next week.

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