As coronavirus spread through France, so did the grey in the prime minister’s impressively dark beard. When Édouard Philippe regularly appeared on television to detail the health crisis or outline lockdown rules, viewers watched as the patch of hair on his left cheek grew, like the physical embodiment of the growing pandemic.
Was it his age, he is 49, or the stress of persistent rumours that the increasingly unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron, was about to dump his increasingly popular government leader?
Last week, after Macron announced France had won the first battle in what he described as the “war” on Covid-19 and life could return to near normal, Philippe put an end to the speculation, telling Paris Match magazine he had vitiligo.
“It’s not serious, or painful or contagious,” he said of the long-term condition that causes white patches on the skin and hair.
Public interest in Philippe’s beard – what the Royal Navy would call a “full set” – highlights the human face of a man often seen as lacking in charisma, but whose gravitas and reassuring tone – along with the occasional sardonic bon mot – have seen France through the pandemic.
Philippe was the relatively unknown mayor of Le Havre when he was appointed to Matignon, the French equivalent of 10 Downing Street, after Macron was elected president two years ago. He left the centre-right Les Républicains, to become prime minister but has never joined Macron’s La République En Marche party. He is up for re-election as Le Havre’s mayor in just over a week, and hopes to hold on to both jobs.
The French media claim relations between him and Macron became increasingly tense during the official “state of health emergency”, with disagreements over how and where to end the country’s strict eight-week lockdown, and the date for the second round of municipal elections, postponed from March until 28 June. Philippe and the Elysée have denied any rupture in relations between the pair.
Philippe’s popularity stands at 54%, according to a BVA poll published on Friday, up 13 points in two months. Macron’s popularity currently hovers around 38%. In the same poll, 61% of those questioned said they did not want a change of prime minister.
Macron, elected on a “neither-right-nor-left” programme, is under pressure from his own party – from which a group of MPs has broken away, ending La REM’s majority – to move further to the left.
Françoise Fressoz, an opinion writer at Le Monde newspaper, suggested Macron had to wrest back power, and popularity, from his prime minister.
“Macron must weigh whether it’s riskier for him to continue with Édouard Philippe than to appoint a new prime minister,” she wrote.