Edouard Philippe served President Emmanuel Macron for three years as a loyal and unshowy prime minister, but his rising popularity and refusal to join the ruling party put his future on the line.
With the French government resigning on Friday in the wake of disappointing local elections, a new name will now take the reins as Macron prepares for 2022 presidential polls.
Macron plucked Philippe, then a member of the rightwing Republicans, from provincial obscurity as mayor of the Normandy port city of Le Havre to become premier after he won the 2017 presidential election.
Philippe admitted he met Macron only three times before the first round of that election, and of being “terrified” before installing himself in the premier’s residence of the Hotel de Matignon.
But in recent weeks the profile of the bearded and measured Philippe has begun to outstrip that of the more reclusive president.
It has been Philippe, rather than Macron, who has waged battle on the political frontline both in this winter’s strikes over pension reforms and now the coronavirus epidemic.
As Macron largely restricted his public pronouncements to televised addresses to the nation, it was left to his premier to provide regular updates as the outbreak worsened and then levelled off.
– ‘Act of confidence’ –
The premier’s efforts were rewarded with a spike in popularity noted by polling agencies, as Macron’s early boost in the crisis eroded.
This created speculation that the president may be none too happy to have a premier who risked stealing the limelight.
A poll by Harris Interactive-Epoka published last week showed that 44 percent of respondents had a favourable opinion of Macron but 51 percent were positive on Philippe, a jump of 13 points for the premier since the start of the epidemic.
His avowedly unspectacular and technocratic style won new fans during the extremes of the COVID-19 crisis, when he refused to sugar the pill and kept a sober and often sombre tone.
Central to tensions that reportedly exist between Macron and Philippe was the face that his premier never became a card-carrying member of Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move (LREM).
He left The Republicans as the right imploded following the fake jobs scandal that torpedoed the presidential campaign of former premier Francois Fillon, but has resolutely stayed an independent.
In recent weeks Philippe waged two political battles — for his future as prime minister and also for the mayorship of Le Havre in his native Normandy, the post he held from 2010-2017, in local elections.
Philippe won a resounding victory in the battle for Le Havre that further cemented his political credibility but intensified expectations that he and Macron could no longer work together as a tandem.
The LREM did not notch up a single major urban victory in the municipal elections, making Philippe’s success as an independent even more glaring.
He described the results as “clear” and an “act of confidence.”
It seems that now Philippe will drift back to his Norman bastion of Le Havre, even if his long-term ambitions are unclear.
– ‘Doudoumania’ –
Nicknamed “Doudou,” Philippe’s popularity surge resulted in the unlikely term “Doudoumania” entering the French media.
Letting his beard grow during the coronavirus crisis, viewers noticed a white patch emerging on its left side, which Philippe revealed was caused by the skin condition vitiligo.
“Edouard Philippe — the unknown who governs France,” glossy current affairs magazine Paris Match said on its front cover this month, with a picture of the gangly 1.94-metre (6 feet 4 inches) premier in decidedly unfashionable chinos and sweater striding through the streets of Le Havre.
Philippe, who worked at a law firm and then as a lobbyist for state nuclear group Areva, supported the Socialists early in his political career before switching to the Republicans.
Belying his staid image, in his spare time Philippe has co-authored two thrillers and is also a keen boxer.
And those close to him say despite his somewhat dour public persona he is hilarious in private, with a talent for impersonations of senior politicians such as ex-presidents Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac or Nicolas Sarkozy.