French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday named a senior but low-profile bureaucrat as prime minister to replace Edouard Philippe, the first move in a widely expected cabinet reshuffle after dismal local election showings for the ruling party.
The new premier, Jean Castex, was totally unknown to many in France until now and is officially a member of the right-wing opposition to Macron's centrists.
But Castex has been in charge of the country's progressive emergence from the coronavirus lockdown, a policy greeted as a relative success by experts.
"I am aware of the immense task that awaits me," Castex said in a statement ahead of the official handover ceremony this afternoon.
Macron has promised a "new course" for France to deal with the crisis, which has plunged France into its worst recession since World War II and left millions of people facing unemployment.
The former investment banker, who swept to power in 2017 on pledges to radically reform France, already has a wary eye on his 2022 re-election bid after months of protests and strikes that preceded the coronavirus outbreak.
A wider cabinet overhaul is expected to be announced in the coming days.
Speculation that Philippe was on the way out mounted this week after Macron's centrist party was routed in municipal elections Sunday, which saw the Greens take control of several major cities.
Philippe, a popular right-wing politician who never joined Macron's Republic on the Move party, nonetheless easily won his bid to be mayor of Le Havre.
His approval ratings have surged over his handling of the coronavirus crisis, while those of Macron, who has pursued ambitious economic reforms since coming to office in 2017, have fallen.
While many analysts thought Macron would tack left or look farther afield for his new prime minister, Castex is a pure product of the French administrative elite, having attended the same ENA managerial university as Macron and Philippe.
"We might have expected a political shift, but this is a technocrat," Christian Jacob, head of The Republicans, told AFP, indicating that Castex would be cast out of the party.
Castex, virtually unknown to the general public outside the Pyrenees village of Prades where he was recently re-elected mayor, will give a prime-time interview to TF1 television at 8:00 pm (1800 GMT) on Friday.
- 'Knows who I am' -
Serving Macron from the start of his presidency, Philippe has pushed through a series of controversial overhauls that sparked massive strikes as well as the fierce "yellow vest" anti-government revolt.
At a meeting Thursday, Macron and Philippe "agreed on the need for a new government to embody a new phase for this term," an official in the Elysee Palace said Friday.
Sources close to Philippe said Friday that he would help Macron "consolidate" his majority in parliament, after an embarrassing series of defections in recent weeks by lawmakers unhappy with the president's policies.
Press reports had suggested that Macron might keep Philippe after all, not least after he praised his work as "remarkable" in an interview with regional newspapers published Thursday.
Nonetheless, "we have to chart a new course" with "a new team," Macron said.
Analysts say Macron has a thin bench of potential replacements, not least because his young party has failed to produce any standouts from its parliamentary ranks.
Other top ministers could also be on the way out.
Under particular pressure is interior minister Christophe Castaner, who has been assailed by critics over the failure to contain the rioting and looting that marred the "yellow vest" protests of 2018-2019.
More recently, Castaner has drawn the ire of police who say he has failed to support them against renewed claims of violence and racism in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Since the start of Macron's presidency, a total of 17 ministers have quit the government, most recently Agnes Buzyn, who stepped down as health minister in a doomed bid to wrest the Paris mayor job from Socialist Anne Hidalgo.
Former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (L) stands with newly-appointed Prime Minister Jean Castex on the steps of the Matignon Hotel in Paris