It was a scene that could have come straight out of a political television drama, or one of the thrillers in which Edouard Philippe has given readers a knowing peek along France’s corridors of power.
Fifteen years ago at a rally of the centre-right UMP party the then adviser to Alain Juppé, party leader, barred interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy from the stage. Mr Philippe rightly suspected that Mr Sarkozy wanted to steal the show. The result was a stand-off that almost ended in a fight. “Don’t you ever do this to me again,” Mr Sarkozy warned the tall young civil servant, lunging forward and hitting Mr Philippe in the chest. Years later Mr Philippe would concede that he “might have done something that had displeased” Mr Sarkozy.
This week French political observers have been reminded of those combative scenes as they try to make sense of Mr Philippe’s appointment as prime minister at the head of the first government of Emmanuel Macron, the country’s president. The 46-year-old amateur boxer said on TV that he practised the sport three times a week because it taught “self-control and combat”.
These traits will be in high demand in coming weeks. As premier, it falls to Mr Philippe to lead the fight for seats in parliamentary elections next month for the president’s electorally untested movement, La République En Marche.
Drawing support from across the political spectrum will be key to Mr Macron’s goal of securing a working majority to underpin his ambitions to reform and revive a France that has been blighted by political and economic malaise. If he succeeds, the hope is that France will be able to work together again with Germany, Europe’s powerhouse, and bring change to the continent.
The 39-year-old president may have momentum after his landslide victory against far-right leader Marine Le Pen. But a parliamentary victory is not certain. While defections from the Socialist party have accelerated after its drubbing in the presidential race, the centre-right party — rebranded Les Républicains by Mr Sarkozy — has been more disciplined and still hopes to win a big block of seats.
As such, Mr Philippe’s role is critical. It is hoped that more of his Republican allies will follow suit after the elections: 173 centre-right politicians have already signed an open letter urging their party to “take the hand extended” by Mr Macron. Mr Philippe’s appointment has increased tension between conservative hardliners and the more moderate Juppéists, who more than 20 years ago as prime minister faced mass protests when he sought to deliver reforms similar to those of Mr Macron.
Since Mr Juppé lost to François Fillon in party primaries in November, the latter have felt ostracised. “Officially we had roles in the Fillon campaign but effectively we were destined for the salt mines,” says Benoist Apparu, one of the letter’s signatories, who would meet every month with Mr Philippe and three other 40-something Republican party colleagues in a Spanish restaurant in Paris, to let off steam.
That Mr Philippe, a Europhile who speaks good German, made the move was no surprise, his friends say. Impatience, sometimes verging on arrogance, is one of his striking traits, and one he shares with Mr Macron. The two men both enjoyed outstanding academic trajectory. Like the president, Mr Philippe was the first in his family to graduate from ENA, the elite school that grooms France’s top civil servants, becoming a lawyer at the Conseil d’Etat, France’s supreme court. His wife, Edith Chabre, is the chief executive of Sciences Po in Paris.
This is a world away from the cathedral city of Rouen where Mr Philippe was born in 1970 to a couple of leftwing literature teachers. He briefly joined the Socialist party, impressed by Michel Rocard, the pro-business prime minister — and Mr Macron’s political mentor — but quickly switched side after realising “liberté” was more important to him than “égalité”.
In 2001 Antoine Rufenacht, the centre-right mayor of Le Havre, convinced him to run for a seat in one of his constituencies. “I lost, but I loved it,” recalls Mr Philippe, a father of three and a fan of Bruce Springsteen. “Not losing — I don’t like losing. I mean politics.”
Like his mentor Mr Juppé, Mr Philippe “doesn’t suffer fools gladly”, but he has a greater sense of humour, according to a senior civil servant who knows them both. In 2004, when Mr Juppé was convicted in an illegal party funding case, Mr Philippe joined Debevoise & Plimpton, a New York law firm that advised French steelmaker Arcelor on a $32bn hostile takeover bid by rival Mittal. Later as head of public affairs at Areva he used his contacts in the administration to soothe tensions between the state-owned nuclear reactor maker and its shareholder. He also wrote two books — L’heure de vérité (Moment of Truth) and Dans l’ombre (In the Shadow) — with another Juppé adviser. One tells the story of a presidential candidate engulfed by allegations of electoral frauds.
In 2010 Mr Rufenacht stepped down and chose Mr Philippe as his successor. In a town that votes left in national elections, he mastered the art of compromise, says Luc Lemonnier, deputy mayor. This should help him steer a government composed of political novices and figures from the left and right.
“He made it work locally,” Mr Lemonnier says. “There’s no reason why he couldn’t make it work nationally.”