(Bloomberg) -- Edouard Philippe, a former French prime minister who regularly tops popularity polls, appeared on a local radio program on Wednesday during which he appeared to put out feelers for a potential run against Emmanuel Macron.
Philippe has been raising his profile and has been touted as a possible challenger to Macron next year. Yet over the course of a 30-minute interview on France Inter Radio, he made a point of voicing support for his former boss while declining to make his own intentions for the presidential election in April 2022 clear.
“We’re missing lots of things in France, but we’re not short of presidential candidates,” Philippe replied when a listener rang in and urged him to run.
He also carefully avoided to say if he’d support Macron next year. “I would like for no one to harbor any doubts on my loyalty and my freedom, and my willingness to serve the country.”
Philippe was replaced with Prime Minister Jean Castex last July after the first wave of coronavirus pandemic. The mayor of the northern, working-class town of Le Havre is France’s most popular politician, according to an Elabe poll for the newspaper Les Echos. He’s especially liked by those who voted for Macron in 2017, the right-wing and retired citizens.
As the French leader becomes increasingly tainted by the coronavirus epidemic and his government’s missteps in handling it, Philippe is appearing as a potential alternative should Macron become too unpopular to run -- a fate that befell his predecessor Francois Hollande four years ago. For now, with the traditional left- and right-wing parties struggling to pick candidates, polls have consistently placed far-right leader Marine Le Pen as Macron’s strongest rival in 2022.
On Tuesday, Philippe took part in an event to mark the 5th anniversary of the creation of Macron’s party with a speech on the need to commit to a party -- although Philippe, who comes from the right, isn’t a member of Macron’s La Republique en Marche.
Philippe has always made a point of highlighting his loyalty, and he could also be trying to help Macron by trying to further split the ranks of the traditional right and steal the thunder of Xavier Bertrand, the right-wing head of the northern Hauts-de-France region who recently said he’d run for president.
While Philippe remained mostly absent from the media until now, he’s been actively promoting his upcoming book, “Impressions and Clear Lines,” which he co-wrote with a former adviser and chronicles his experience as prime minister.
Philippe was heading France when the Yellow Vests movement, massive protests and transport strikes against Macron’s planned pension reform emerged. He handled the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic, pushing to keep the country under lockdown and was in charge of announcing details about the measures being taken to try and contain the virus.
He was pushed out after his popularity started climbing, with Macron also suspending his flagship pension reform because of Covid and promising to “re-invent himself.”
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