New PM Castex: France's low-profile coronavirus czar

by Claire GALLEN
·3-min read
New prime minister, Jean Castex, earned plaudits for overseeing the easing of France's coronavirus lockdown
New prime minister, Jean Castex, earned plaudits for overseeing the easing of France's coronavirus lockdown

The new French prime minister Jean Castex is a low-profile civil servant and local politician from the right, who recently gained prominence for drawing up policy to ease the coronavirus lockdown. For supporters, Castex is a hugely impressive bureaucrat who will rapidly master the brief of prime minister and handling relations with President Emmanuel Macron, who sits atop a presidential system where the premier is very much number two. But detractors have already rubbished the appointment, asking why Macron has bothered to replace Edouard Philippe, also a conservative male who has served for three years, with more of the same. Castex, 55, was largely re-elected mayor of Prades, a small town in the southern Pyrenees mountains, in the first round of local elections in March. But he is no stranger to the national corridors of power since his time as an advisor to ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy. He will take office in the premier's residence at the Hotel de Matignon on Friday afternoon and is expected to form his new government shortly. "A senior civil servant who knows the health world perfectly well and who is impressively efficient," said the now former premier Philippe when Castex was nominated to design the easing of the coronavirus lockdown. France's gradual easing of the lockdown has been regarded largely as a success, with life returning to normal across the country and no sign of the feared "second wave" yet. - 'Overcoming differences' - Born in 1965 in the southwestern village of Vic-Fezensac where his father was mayor, Castex studied history in Toulouse before moving to Paris to continue his studies at the prestigious Sciences Po faculty. He then went to the elite managerial school ENA, which Macron and Philippe also attended. Castex was twice chief of staff for Xavier Bertrand, who was health minister and then labour minister under the presidencies of Jacques Chirac and Sarkozy. At the time Castex had to deal with a number of sensitive cases, such as a pension reform and a law that forced strikers in the transport sector to provide a minimum service. "His warmth and charm are incredible and he is naturally humble and empathic," said a colleague who worked with Castex when he was at the health ministry, and who asked not to be named. The choice of Castex as new PM is "in line with the spirit of overcoming differences promoted by the president over the last three years," said the Elysee Palace. Castex's politics are resolutely right-wing and has said in the past that his is "completely comfortable with that fact." - 'Connections everywhere' - Father of four daughters, Castex was the coordinator between ministries in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and head of the National Sports Agency, from Macron's election in 2017 to January this year. "He's a jack of all trades, he has connections everywhere and he knows what to do at the right time and in the right place," said Franck Louvrier, an ex-advisor to Sarkozy. Xavier Bertrand, now head of France's northern Hauts-de-France region, tweeted that "I know and I appreciate the qualities" of Castex as "a servant of the state." "They will be essential in the difficult times that we are going to face," he said. But left-wing MEP Manon Aubry was dismissive. "Everything changes so that nothing changes! A man of the right replaces a man of the right to pursue the same anti-social and anti-ecological policies," she said on Twitter. Castex's record has so far not highlighted a huge interest in the environment, to the disappointment of the Greens who were the chief winners in Sunday's second round of local elections. "We're spoiling a historic opportunity to put the country on an environmentally-friendly path," Secretary General of the Europe Ecology - The Greens (EELV) party Julien Bayou told Franceinfo radio. New prime minister, Jean Castex, earned plaudits for overseeing the easing of France's coronavirus lockdown