French President Emmanuel Macron is facing a new dilemma that could hurt his chances for re-election in 2022.
Recent opinion polls have shown that Prime Minister Edouard Philippe is more popular than President Macron. According to polling firm Ifop, in June, the prime minister had an approval rating of 50% — well above Macron’s, which stood at 38%. In a political system where the president is the main political figure, Macron is studying his political alternatives.
“He is certainly tempted to make a change,” Mujtaba Rahman, managing director at the research firm Eurasia Group, told CNBC amid speculation that Macron is considering changing prime minister.
“But, Philippe is very popular,” he said. “Dumping him (even amicably) will be risky. Keeping him is also problematic, if his popularity puts Macron in the shade.
In France, the president selects the prime minister, who then forms the government.
The Elysee, the official residency of the president, wasn’t immediately available for comment when contacted by CNBC.
A French newspaper reported earlier this month that Macron was considering resigning and triggering a new election to revamp the presidency post-coronavirus. His office denied the report.
Macron was elected in 2017 on a pro-European platform and reformist agenda, promising to make France’s labor market less rigid. He created his own centrist party En Marche! as an alternative to the conservative Les Republicains and left-wing Socialist Party — the two mainstream groups that had dominated French politics until then.
Edouard Philippe, relatively unknown to the public before being nominated by Macron, is a center-right politician.
“I think Macron faces a dilemma. The Covid-19 crisis has boosted Philippe’s approval ratings, so replacing him could be negatively perceived by the public,” Antonio Barroso, managing director at research firm Teneo, told CNBC.
“But Philippe is clearly placed on the center-right, which might make it difficult for Macron to expand his support base if he does not change his prime minister.”
The road to 2022
In the coming months, Macron is likely to focus on economic recovery in order to boost his popularity among voters ahead of the 2022 vote.
“Macron will likely try to turn the economic slowdown into an advantage by pushing for policies that could help him to be perceived as an efficient crisis manager,” Barroso said via email.
However, this could be difficult given the uncertainty of the pandemic and the fact that no president has won a second term since 2002.
“Macron wants to give priority to ecologically friendly policies and a more ‘social’ approach to issues such as health spending. But he insists that the core of his original policy – making France more competitive internationally by deregulation and restraining taxes; making it easier for outsiders, such as the young and unemployed, to find training and jobs – will not be abandoned,” Rahman from Eurasia Group said.
The French economy did well in the first years of the Macron presidency, growing by 2.3% in 2017 and 1.8% in 2018. In 2019 it expanded by 1.5%. The unemployment rate, meanwhile, fell to 8.5% in 2019 from 9.4% in 2017.
However, the pandemic has now derailed the economy, with France’s gross domestic product expected to contract by more than 8 percentage points this year, according to the European Commission.