PARIS (Reuters) – He is known in France as the political job from hell.
A French prime minister should be loyal, content to linger in the shadow of his boss and have a helping hand with the country’s leafy bureaucracy. He or she must also know that he or she will be eliminated if the president’s popularity is low.
These will be just some of the qualities President Emmanuel Macron has in mind this week as he considers a new prime minister to launch a second term that will be without any honeymoon with the electorate.
A Macron strategist has said the president will appoint a new prime minister before the June legislative elections.
Macron must send the signal that he has heard the frustrations of voters expressed by the low turnout and the high scores of the far-right and far-left radical parties.
“The president is keen to appoint a woman. Someone who understands the state apparatus but is not political,” a government official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
The official and another government source said Macron, who has been pushing for a gender-balanced cabinet, was looking for a female prime minister after failing to fulfill a campaign promise to do so during his first term.
If so, it would be the first since Edith Cresson briefly occupied the Hôtel de Matignon under the presidency of socialist leader François Mitterrand in the early 1990s.
The same two sources, who know Macron’s thinking, said the president also wanted someone with proven “green” credentials.
During the presidential campaign, Macron said he would entrust his next prime minister with “green planning”, in a bid to appeal to leftist voters’ nostalgia for post-war central planning while tapping into concerns of the 21st century regarding climate change.
Such a profile could help counter the challenge launched by far-left veteran Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came third in the first round of the presidential election and wants to rally a union of the left to dominate parliament and force Macron in an awkward “cohabitation”.
In keeping with French tradition, Macron is seen as choosing a competent and sure pair of hands with limited charisma.
“It is not in his interest to appoint someone who could overshadow him,” the government official said.
Macron’s first prime minister, Edouard Philippe, was the unknown mayor of the mid-sized port city of Le Havre when he was propelled to Matignon. The conciliatory Philippe has become increasingly popular during the pandemic, giving empathetic press conferences that contrasted with Macron’s warlike speeches.
Philippe’s popularity has left Macron feeling threatened, sources said. Macron sacked Philippe and replaced him with Jean Castex, an inoffensive mayor with a high regional pace near the Pyrenees. The Elysée said at the time that Macron wanted a new prime minister to embody a “new chapter” after the lockdown.
Now, within Macron’s party, several names are circulating – often a sure sign that they will not be the right ones.
Among them, the Minister of Labor Elisabeth Borne and the Minister of Agriculture Julien Denormandie. They are both considered competent left-wing technocrats with a background in environmental affairs. But the government official downplayed them.
“It would appear that we are retraining former ministers,” the official said.
Two parliamentary sources indicated that the name of Nicolas Sarkozy’s former environment minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, was also mentioned in the political corridors.
As in 2017, the president risks keeping his cards close to his chest until the last minute. “The president is going to surprise us,” the government official said.
(Reporting by Michel Rose; additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Richard Lough and Frank Jack Daniel)