Lost glasses, Mr Lockdown: Memorable moments of French PM Jean Castex

The outgoing head of government has been praised by colleagues for a job well done. We look back at some of the funny, regrettable and notable points of his time in the role

Prime Minister Jean Castex giving a speech
Jean Castex will soon step down as France’s prime minister having first been appointed in July 2020
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French Prime Minister Jean Castex is set to step down in the next two weeks after President Emmanuel Macron’s win in this year’s election.

He has the option to remain in his role until the country’s legislative elections in June but has said: “I am among those who believe, as the President of the Republic has said, that a new impetus must be found after the re-election of the president.”

We look back at his almost two years as the country’s head of government, including an awkward TV appearance, his struggles during the pandemic, and his now widely accepted regional accent.

The incident of the lost glasses

Mr Castex was the French prime minister who led the country through the vast majority of the global Covid pandemic, but he may well end up being best remembered for an amusing and relatable moment in which, live on TV, he “lost” his glasses …only to realise he was wearing them.

On December 3, 2020, he was preparing to announce France’s Covid vaccination strategy to the nation in a televised speech. But the prime minister had a moment of panic seconds before he was due to start speaking when he could not find his reading glasses.

He searched desperately in all his pockets before giving up and starting his speech, only then to realise that he had been wearing his glasses the whole time.

Mr Castex later laughed off the incident, and took the chance to promote the government’s free glasses scheme, 100% Santé.

The moment struck a chord with viewers and the French public for how relatable it was.

Read more: Dentistry, glasses: How to benefit from France’s 100% Santé scheme

Mr Déconfinement to Mr ‘Mal-aimé’

Before Mr Castex was prime minister, he was “Mr Déconfinement”.

France went into lockdown ('confinement') on March 17, 2020, in response to the Covid outbreak.

At the time, the highly popular Édouard Philippe was the country’s prime minister. Mr Philippe and President Emmanuel Macron later chose Mr Castex to lead the strategy to bring the country out of lockdown.

It meant he ended up with the nickname ‘Mr Déconfinement’.

He was then chosen to replace Mr Philippe as prime minister, and took up the role on July 3.

But his new nickname did not stick around for long as a new wave of Covid hit the country and forced a return to lockdown.

After a promising start, Mr Castex’s popularity plummeted among the public. He went from having a positive image among 43% of people polled to 28% in October of 2020.

French humorist Tanguy Pastureau summed this up in a radio piece on December 14 of that year, saying: "Castex, we can't take it anymore, he only announces negative things, he is more depressing than 25 years of Radiohead's discography."

Many political pundits pointed out that he was suffering from a comparison to former prime minister Mr Philippe, who often polls as France’s favourite politician.

Regional daily newspaper L'Alsace wrote of him on December 15: "Incompetent, not likeable, and not charismatic: The prime minister is harshly judged by the French people."

Mr Castex’s image has recovered greatly since then, with the Covid pandemic receding and, in conjunction, the need for the prime minister to deliver depressing speeches about new rules.

He consistently had more than 40% likeability scores in polls during 2021, although this did take a slight knock in December when new Covid restrictions were put in place.

'You’re a very good intern'

Mr Castex attracted the ire of internet users last September when he was called out for making a seemingly sexist remark to a radio presenter.

The prime minister was a guest on France 2 radio show 'On est en direct' on September 5, invited on to discuss the pandemic, the anti-vax movement, and other political matters.

The two hosts were Laurent Ruquier and Léa Salamé, the latter of whom was about to become a regular co-host on the show.

Ms Salamé is one of France’s best-known broadcast journalists and was chosen to co-moderate the recent presidential debate between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen on April 20.

During the broadcast in September, Mr Castex was asked by Mr Ruquier a question about the Covid health pass rules, which Mr Castex answered with a rather wry and punchy response.

Ms Salamé pulled him up on it, and asked him to return to the question, which she deemed “very important”.

Mr Castex then quipped to Mr Ruquier: “She is a good intern. You can lend her to me as an intern later on.”

Mr Castex is comfortable with the hosts of the show and regularly refers to them by their first names.

His comment was interpreted as being misogynistic, qualifying Ms Salamé as no more than an intern. Other commentators suggested that he could have just been referring to the fact that Ms Salamé was about to step up as regular co-host of the show.

At the time, Ms Salamé is said to have smiled awkwardly at the comment, but moved on and did not mention it later.

'Jean Castex a un accent, et alors?'

Mr Castex, born in the department of Gers in southwestern France, has a regional accent, and this has not been overlooked.

In France, most politicians who end up working high up in the government take on a more standardised accent, but Mr Castex does not hide his roots when he speaks (his accent can be heard in the video below).

When he first took up the role of prime minister, there were many remarks about this, some positive, some negative.

Mathieu Avanzi is a French linguist and author of the book Comme On Dit Chez Nous, which demonstrates the use of regional expressions and words in France through maps, spoke to The Connexion in January 2021 about this.

“When he was first named prime minister I was at my parents’ house and I overheard him speaking on the TV, but I didn’t see him,” Mr Avanzi said.

“And I heard that he really had a strong accent. Then I heard an interview with people from the department where Castex was working before, and they said he didn’t really have an accent or he had lost his accent.

“It was completely the opposite to what I thought. Some people who are not used to it will say that he has a strong accent but others from that region will say he doesn’t have much of an accent.”

It appears as if the French public has got used to his accent, with comments about it now far less common on social media networks.

The attitude now may be best summed up by an article that appeared in French magazine L'Express shortly after his appointment as prime minister. The title was: “Jean Castex has an accent, so what? (Jean Castex a un accent, et alors?)”

Loyal until the end

Mr Castex received a wave of support from his colleagues after announcing his plans to step down as prime minister, with President Macron chief among his admirers.

“Jean Castex came from the political right; Yet, he led one of the most social political programmes of the last few decades, because he is also a kind-hearted man with a social conscience,” he said.

Other ministers said more simply: “He did the job”, while one of his colleagues said: “He was loyal until the very end”.

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