PARIS: His physical appearance transformed but largely pledging continuity with the rule of President Emmanuel Macron, France's popular former premier Edouard Philippe is staking out the ground for a run for the presidency in 2027 against an increasingly stern challenge from far-right figurehead Marine Le Pen.
Philippe has been omnipresent in France over the past week, giving a blitz of media interviews and publishing his latest book, outlining positions well beyond his current remit as mayor of the northern port of Le Havre.
But the French have seen a man who is now almost physically unrecognisable from the premier who led the government from 2017-2020, notably including at the height of the first phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. Skin conditions have meant that Philippe, who used to sport a dark, bushy beard, is now almost completely bald.
While the 2027 race is still far off, there has already been intense jostling among Macron's centrist faction given the president himself is not allowed to stand for a third consecutive term and polls indicate Le Pen has her best ever chance at winning the Elysee.
A poll this week by Toluna's Harris Interactive for Challenges magazine showed that Le Pen would win the first round of presidential elections under any scenario. Of the pro-Macron faction, only either Philippe or smooth-talking Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire would make the second round ahead of hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon.
“A politician who comes up to you and says ‘The next presidential election? We are not thinking about it at all!’ is telling fibs,“ Philippe told TF1 television in one of his many interviews this week.
Philippe, whose political party Horizons supports Macron but is not part of the president's own Renaissance party, has yet to confirm he will run. But he has left so many hints that commentators assume he plans to seek the top job.
“I have a pretty clear idea, yes, of how things might go for me,“ he told France Inter radio.
He warned in an interview with Le Monde that a victory by Le Pen, who was defeated by Macron in the past two elections in 2017 and 2022, was “possible”.
'Plan for Elysee'
Philippe, who defected from the main right-wing party Les Republicains (LR) to back Macron in 2017, has outlined positions to the right of centre and notably expressed alarm that aspects of Islam are “radically different to what we want to do in our Republic”.
His latest book, “Places that Speak”, “is a step in his plan to take him to the steps of the Elysee,“ the Le Monde daily said, describing Philippe as a man “with one foot in and one foot outside of the Macronie”.
Philippe will at all costs want to avoid the fate of his mentor, the former prime minister and Bordeaux mayor Alain Juppe, who was widely tipped for the 2017 presidential race but lost the LR nomination to Francois Fillon whose campaign was then torpedoed by a fake jobs scandal.
Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has warned the government that the election is still “far off” but this has not stopped ministers jostling for position, with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a protege of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy, notably declaring his intention last month.
In a sign of the potential banana skins ahead, a complaint has been filed with national finance prosecutors against Philippe and his team over alleged misuse of funds in Le Havre. He has yet to comment.
'Come box with me'
Philippe's media campaign this week allowed voters to get used to his new appearance due to the twin conditions he sufferers from -- alopecia hair loss and vitiligo which changes skin colour.
But the ex-premier, known as an obsessive boxing fanatic, has insisted his general health is unaffected.
“If the French say that candidates for presidential elections must have long hair then I haven’t got a chance,“ he joked on TF1. But he added: “My health is excellent and I invite anyone who doubts this to come and box with me.”
By founding his own party, Philippe has notably put some political distance between himself and Macron, who he is wary of describing as a friend.
His party already has 20,000 members, including 450 mayors.
“I am close to the president of the republic,“ he told France Inter. “But I am not completely identical to him either, neither in terms of style, nor even in all his convictions.” - AFP