PARIS — Seeking to give his government a fresh start after the coronavirus pandemic battered the nation, President Emmanuel Macron of France shuffled prime ministers on Friday after vowing weeks ago to reinvent himself, trading in the popular incumbent, Édouard Philippe, for a relatively unknown functionary who helped guide France out of the health emergency, Jean Castex.
Facing an economic crisis brought on by the virus, an ever-tenuous hold on public opinion, and a surge in support for Green parties in local voting last Sunday, Mr. Macron chose to separate himself from the most popular member of his government.
But in doing so he took a chance: Mr. Philippe, paradoxically, is the only French political leader to have emerged from the health emergency with sharply enhanced credibility. The French president is putting to the test the adage that in politics it is better to keep one’s rivals close at hand.
By appointing Mr. Castex, the low-profile mayor of a modest town in the French Pyrenees who shaped France’s so far successful strategy to ease lockdown restrictions, Mr. Macron appears to be trying to signal that he is looking ahead. But in doing so he is once again butting up against public opinion, as a new poll revealed this week that nearly 60 percent of French signaled that Mr. Philippe should have been kept in his post.
Replacing prime ministers, like firing managers in baseball, is a well-established tradition for modern French presidents looking to create new energy. Mr. Macron has two years to go in a rocky five-year term marked by social unrest, some economic progress, and now a shaky business outlook. For weeks, speculation about the fate of Mr. Philippe — who did an unusually long spell for a French prime minister — had swirled in the media and in political circles.
Mr. Macron had widely been expected to extensively reshape his cabinet in a bid to begin a new phase after the coronavirus pandemic hit France hard, in the hopes of giving his government a fresh mandate in the last stretch of his five-year term in office, which ends in 2022.
France is still dealing with the aftermath of an initial coronavirus outbreak, which has led to nearly 30,000 deaths in the country. France fared worse than Germany in its number of cases, but considerably better than some of its northern and southern neighbors.
The reshuffle was all the more expected after a strong showing by Green parties in France’s municipal elections last week, which added pressure on Mr. Macron to change his governing team.
Unlike many of its European neighbors, France has a system of government in which the president, elected directly by the French people, is the head of the executive branch and is usually the main policy driver. The prime minister and cabinet are accountable to Parliament, but are appointed by the president and responsible for day-to-day governing.
Mr. Philippe had won plaudits and popularity as a calm, steady presence during the initial wave of the virus. Where Mr. Macron lectured his countrymen in lofty, lengthy and martial declarations about France’s state of “war,” Mr. Philippe delivered unvarnished facts. He laid out the steps toward easing the country’s lockdown without sugarcoating the challenges or exaggerating the dangers.
In an interview on Thursday with France’s regional press, Mr. Macron praised Mr. Philippe for helping him carry out “important historic reforms in circumstances that were often very hard” and said they had a special “relationship of trust.”
“I will have choices to make to lead the new way,” Mr. Macron said of the cabinet reshuffle. He said that “there will be a new team,” but did not specify whether it would include Mr. Philippe.
Workers began arriving with moving boxes at the Hôtel de Matignon, the prime minster’s residence and office in central Paris, on Friday morning.
Mr. Philippe, a right-wing politician whose calm, pragmatic manner has been praised by the French during the pandemic, has climbed in opinion polls over the past weeks.
Mr. Philippe was a relatively unknown mayor of Le Havre, a port town in northern France, when Mr. Macron appointed him prime minister in 2017.