PARIS — French Prime Minister Jean Castex made a name for himself as Monsieur Déconfinement (Mister Lockdown Exit) after he drafted plans for lifting coronavirus restrictions this spring before heading for higher office.
But as the second wave sweeps across France, the crisis management skills that were supposed to be his forte seem to be failing him — at least in the eyes of the public.
“Castex arrived more than halfway through Macron’s mandate, having no political weight, not knowing ministers who have mastered their administrations, knowing their subject,” said a ministry official on the condition of anonymity. “He must be given a little more time for he has a very difficult position.”
The prime minister himself admits his first months in office have been bumpy.
“It’s true that I have a lot of hassles,” Castex told Le Parisien earlier this month. “But even if I’m getting hit in the face right now, it doesn’t matter. I’ll take it.”
While the prime minister’s job is known to be a tough one — the holder often takes the heat while the president remains shielded from day-to-day political backlash — several communication mistakes led to a surge of criticism from the opposition and also from government officials.
President Emmanuel Macron had to take center stage again last week on public messaging on coronavirus, announcing new measures including curfews in nine of the country’s major cities.
Three days earlier, as the country was looking at a surge in reported cases with increasing anxiety, Castex appeared to blame citizens’ carelessness for the second wave.
“We have had a very efficient lockdown exit, the holidays came and the French collectively thought it was over,” Castex said on France Info, before urging people to pull themselves together.
In the same interview, the prime minister twice stumbled over the name of the French tracing app StopCovid, which he called “Télécovid.” The mistake came a few weeks after the prime minister confessed on television that he did not download the application that he urged the French public to install.
Jean-Daniel Levy, an analyst at the Harris Interactive polling institute, said the French people resent Castex for his lack of anticipation of the second wave.
“We knew that there might be a second wave and after the debate on masks shortages … there is now a debate on testing,” Levy said. “In this context, a solution must be found for easy screening — a question that Jean Castex has found himself unable to answer yet.”
Macron addressed that question in his speech last week, promising a new testing strategy. The president also acknowledged some mistakes in the coronavirus response and struck a protective tone that contrasted with his prime minister’s.
Castex’s problems are also an issue for Macron, who bet on a change of prime minister to reset his presidency.
Jean-Michel Mis, an MP from Macron’s La République en Marche (LREM), says the prime minister’s unpopularity is mostly the consequence of him being unknown to the public when he became prime minister in July.
“And now, Castex is the one whose role is to choose between inconveniences,” said Mis.
But while difficult tasks come with the job, they’re not the only reason Castex has “abnormally low popularity for a prime minister,” according to Bruno Cautrès, a professor at Sciences Po, the political science university in Paris.
Cautrès compared Castex’s approval ratings to those of his predecessors who arrived halfway through their president’s term of office or after a crisis such as the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks.
“Compared to the popularity of Manuel Valls [prime minister between 2014 and 2016] after three months of office, Jean Castex is lower,” said Cautrès. “Valls maintained a higher position in the polls during his first three months of office and started his fall in the fall, while Castex’s negative opinions soared since the summer,” said Cautrès.
The professor said there has been a struggle to convince the French of the added value of Castex over his predecessor Edouard Philippe.
When he came to power three months ago, Castex was touted for his experience as a local politician with hands-on operational skills. The subtext was that he would somehow counter the narrative that Macron and his government are heavily trusted only by technocrats trained in the nation’s elite schools and detached from reality. This was a message they particularly wanted to send to rural areas.
Castex, who has a strong southwestern accent and is also mayor of a small town in the Pyrénées, would play to his strengths and coordinate smoothly with local administrations and officials, so the thinking went. During his first few weeks as government head, Castex traveled around the country, making more than 20 trips outside the French capital.
But Castex’s Tour de France apparently did not lead to seamless cooperation with all local officials and the government’s overall strategy came under serious attack in Marseille.
Mayor Michèle Rubirola, from a green-left coalition, said local officials were not consulted before learning of the implementation of stricter measures related to the spread of coronavirus in the region. “I won’t allow the people of Marseille to become the victims of political decisions that no one understands,” Rubirola wrote on social media.
Criticism has also come from Castex’s former party, the center-right Les Républicains.
“Castex has to his credit his approach at the local level,” said conservative MP Damien Abad, “but he is a captain who finds it difficult to set a course, it feels like we’re navigating in the mist.”
Getting priorities right
Three ministry officials echoed this, saying that the prime minister’s teams were still struggling to organize themselves and make smooth decisions, although no one says this is an easy task.
“They’ve only been working together for three months, the team doesn’t really know each other and already has to face a crisis,” an official from the finance ministry said.
The prime minister’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Multiple officials said that Castex’s team was struggling to reconcile health and economic imperatives while keeping in mind the environmental objectives that Macron has made a priority for the second part of his mandate.
While Castex falls in the polls, former Prime Minister Philippe has one of the strongest popularity ratings in the country and makes magazine front covers, which often refer to him with the affectionate nickname “Doudou.”
“Philippe still has a very great presence, there is a real nostalgia that Castex cannot manage to erase,” said an official from the LREM group in the National Assembly.
In what could provide comfort for Castex, Philippe also had hard times with the parliament and the French public — especially during strikes against the aborted pension reform and the Yellow Jackets movement.
“It is too easy to reproach Castex that he is not in the continuity of Edouard Philippe’s expression or personality. We must also adapt ourselves to him,” said Éric Bothorel, an LREM MP.
Rym Momtaz contributed reporting.