(Bloomberg) -- Edouard Philippe, the center-right mayor of the port city of Le Havre, was named France’s new prime minister, charged with putting into action the economic reforms of the newly inaugurated President Emmanuel Macron.
The first major announcement of Macron’s 24-hour-old presidency was made by Alexis Kohler, the president’s chief of staff. Philippe, who’s also a member of parliament, will now be tasked with selecting his ministers ahead of the first cabinet meeting Wednesday. The ministers are expected to be announced late Tuesday and are likely to be a mix of centrists, center-right politicians like Philippe, moderate Socialists, and entrepreneurs, people in business and other non-politicians.
“I’m a man of the right... but I know that common good must guide our work,” Philippe said at a ceremony Monday as he took over from his predecessor, Socialist Bernard Cazeneuve. Later, in a television interview on TF1 he said “the situation is unique enough to try something that has never been tried before.”
The 46-year-old Philippe -- who’s relatively unknown in France and, according to French media, is a fan of Bruce Springsteen -- is a member of the Republicans party and initially supported Alain Juppe in the presidential campaign. By picking Philippe, Macron, a former minister in Socialist Francois Hollande’s government, is looking to broaden his appeal ahead of the legislative elections in June.
Macron needs a majority or at least enough seats in parliament to govern or form a coalition. Without that, he could find himself a figurehead from the get-go, incapable of putting into action his campaign promises of economic modernization.
“For years, France has been trying to consolidate its strengths; with this appointment, Macron is gathering strength from the right and the left,” Bruno Bonnell, an entrepreneur and now a candidate in the June election for Macron’s Republique en Marche party, said in a Bloomberg TV interview. “With this appointment, we’ll have a bigger majority.”
Macron’s political movement has named 511 candidates for the 577-seat parliament and plans to name the rest this week.
Having already split the Socialist Party with his run for the presidency, Macron’s act of luring one of the leading young lights of the centrist wing of the Republicans now threatens to splinter that party as well. A group of 28 lawmakers from centrist parties and Philippe’s Republicans Monday evening signed a letter calling on their parties “to respond to the open hand” of Macron, Agence France-Presse reported.
Philippe said on TF1 that he agreed to become Macron’s prime minister after a lunch Monday. He said the list of ministers hasn’t been finalized yet.
Since 2010, Philippe has been mayor of Le Havre, France’s second-largest port, which was a longtime communist stronghold before drifting to the center-right as its economy diversified. The grandson of a dockworker, according to French media, Philippe is a boxer and, like Macron, graduated from France’s elite ENA, the National School of Administration.
Philippe, who studied at the Lycee Francais in Bonn and speaks German, campaigned for the Socialist Party during his student years. He has alternated between being an elected official, adviser to various ministers, working as a lawyer, and as the head of public affairs for state-controlled energy company Areva.
Whether Philippe’s government can last beyond a few months depends on whether Macron’s nascent political movement can win a majority in the June 11 and 18 parliamentary elections or at least take enough seats to lead a coalition. If a rival political formation takes command of parliament, it can vote out the government and impose a new one.
Macron is the first French president in the modern era to be elected without the support of France’s two main political movements, the Socialists and the Gaullists, now called The Republicans.
He defeated the National Front’s Marine Le Pen by 66 to 34 percent in the May 7 runoff after the most divisive and tumultuous election in the past half a century, and he’s promised to remodel French politics to go beyond what he said is an unproductive divide between left and right.
Le Pen had her own take on the Philippe appointment, saying that it will mean the same narrative that has dominated France over the last few decades.
“It’s a sacred alliance of the old left and right, united in their determination to hold onto power at all costs and to pursue their common policies of austerity, submission to Brussels, and massive immigration that have done such damage to France,” she said in a statement Monday.
Macron and his new prime minister face major challenges. While multiple surveys show business confidence is at its highest level since 2011, they inherit an economy that has lagged behind the euro-area average for the past three years. France’s unemployment rate remains stuck at 10 percent, roughly double the level in the U.K. and Germany. And France is still officially under emergency rule after a string of terror attacks since 2015.
Macron has said the first task for his government will be to pass a series of “political moralization” laws to ban lawmakers from hiring family members and limiting what remunerated activities they can do on the side. Over the summer, he wants his government to start tackling a liberalization of France’s labor code and propose tax cuts.
Philippe said he agreed with Macron’s vow to use decrees to liberalize the labor code without passing through parliament. “The French voted for a transformation,” he said on TF1. “That doesn’t mean a refusal of dialog.”
Entrepreneur Bonnell, a former video-games executive who did a brief television stint on the French version of “The Apprentice,” said he believes Macron will succeed where others before him have failed.
“There’s a strong belief now in France that it’s time to go into the 21st century.” he said.