France’s new President Emmanuel Macron named Edouard Philippe, a little-known centre-right mayor, as prime minister on Monday, in his first major decision since taking power on a promise to lead a French “renaissance”.
The new prime minister, Edouard Philippe, is a low-profile 46-year-old from the rightwing Republicans party whose politics and interests mirror those of centrist President Emmanuel Macron.
As well as being of similar age, both come from provincial France but followed a classic route through the elite universities Sciences Po and ENA, then public service in Paris and on to politics.
Both have also worked briefly in the private sector – Philippe in a law firm and then as a lobbyist for state nuclear group Areva, while Macron was once an investment banker.
And both count well-connected political advisor and writer Jacques Attali as well as late Socialist prime minister Michel Rocard as influences during their ascent through French political life.
Unknown to average French person
But whereas Macron considers himself left-leaning and got his break under Socialist President Francois Hollande, the bearded Philippe has worked his way up internally through the conservative Republicans party.
The mayor of his hometown since 2010, the gritty northern port of Le Havre, Philippe was first elected to parliament in 2012 as a Republicans MP for his Seine-Maritime area.
The son of two teachers is a longtime ally of ex-prime minister Alain Juppe, the veteran centrist whom he backed as a candidate for the Republicans’ nomination for this year’s election.
“He has the advantage of being completely unknown to the average French person,” political analyst Chloe Morin of the Jean-Jaures Foundation, a left-leaning think-tank, said.
Macron, who won the presidential election on May 7, came to power promising to renew French politics and bring in fresh faces.
As well as their similarities in outlook and experience, Philippe’s political positioning is crucial to understanding why France’s youngest president has plucked him from relative obscurity.
Macron is hoping to attract other young, centrist allies in the Republicans to his new Republique En Marche party (Republic on the Move, REM), and his choice will perhaps entice others to cross over.
Sporty, multilingual and ‘a bit crazy’
Speaking last Thursday, Philippe encouraged Macron to “transgress” by naming someone from outside his party which he hinted would encourage some of his colleagues to join the REM.
Macron wants to win a parliamentary majority in June elections with the REM, which he hopes will redraw the political landscape, ending the grip on power of the traditional forces of left and right, the Socialists and Republicans.
Philippe is sporty, multi-lingual and known to be an intellectual, but is also seen by some critics as aloof or even arrogant.
“Intelligent, lively and at times a bit crazy,” one insider who worked with him in the Republicans party said on condition of anonymity, adding that he had a tendency to be “brusque” with colleagues.
“He’s not easy to get to know,” a local politician in his native Normandy region also said on condition of anonymity, adding that Philippe “doesn’t have massive warmth” despite having many qualities.
‘Self-confident and ambitious’
A book last year on Juppe by journalist Gael Tchakaloff was brutal, describing Philippe as having “arrogance, an excess of self-confidence and ambitions beyond all proportion”.
The new prime minister is also a keen amateur boxer, has written two crime thrillers, and has a strong interest in war-time British prime minister Winston Churchill.
And his impersonations of senior politicians such as ex-presidents Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac or Nicolas Sarkozy are admired by colleagues and friends alike.
He is married, has three children and speaks German, which could come in handy as Macron seeks to persuade Berlin to join his ambitious efforts to “reform and relaunch” the European Union.
In Le Havre, an important port for container ships on the Channel coast, he has organised an international conference called Positive Economy Forum since 2012.
Inviting activists, economists and business executives, it tackles many of the themes that were central to Macron’s election such as how to modernise France to increase economic growth while respecting workers and the environment.