11 July 2024

Paris, France – French leader Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday picked Gabriel Attal as prime minister in a bid to give new momentum to his presidency, with the 34-year-old becoming France’s youngest and first openly gay head of government.

Following days of speculation, Macron on Monday accepted the resignation of Elisabeth Borne, 62, who stepped down after serving less than two years in office.

The overhaul comes ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris and European parliament elections this summer, where Macron’s centrist forces risk defeat at the hands of the far-right under Marine Le Pen.

It also further intensifies manoeuvring to succeed Macron, who himself took office in 2017, aged just 39, ahead of 2027 presidential elections.

A wider cabinet reshuffle is expected this week as Macron seeks to sharpen his team for the final three years of his presidency.

Attal hailed his appointment as a symbol of “audacity and movement” as he took over from Borne during an official ceremony at the prime minister’s Matignon residence in Paris.

“France will never be synonymous with decline, France will be synonymous with transformation, France will be synonymous with audacity,” he said.

Borne, only the second woman to lead the French government, said she would continue to serve France as a lawmaker, telling women that “the future belongs to you.”

– Eye on Elysee? –

Attal is set to bring a major change of style to the office of the prime minister.

Borne’s austere and no-nonsense demeanour won respect from colleagues but not necessarily popularity among the public, whereas Attal is a highly popular figure in government after his brief stint at the politically crucial education ministry.

The president said he wanted Attal to bring back the spirit of bold change from when Macron first won office on a wave of hope for radical reform in 2017.

“I know I can count on your energy and your commitment,” said Macron on X, adding that the new premier would act in line with the spirit of “excellence and audacity” of 2017.

But the conservative daily Le Figaro warned that “youth does not create a programme” and said Attal may also have his eye on climbing to the very top.

“With such a promotion, the race for the 2027 presidential election is also inevitably set in motion,” said the newspaper.

Attal plunged straight into the job Tuesday with a visit to people hit by repeated flooding in northern France “to show the solidarity of the whole country” and promise “exceptional resources” to build back.

“You are the embodiment of the France that works hard, that gets up early in the morning… we are with you,” he told one distressed shopkeeper in the village of Clairmarais in Normandy.

 

– ‘Rules alone’ –
Opposition leaders reacted with derision to the elevation of Attal to prime minister, which makes him the fourth head of government since Macron took power.

“The presidential monarch rules alone with his court,” said hard-left figurehead Jean-Luc Melenchon.

“What can the French expect from this fourth prime minister and fifth government in seven years?” said Le Pen.

“They can expect nothing.”

Under the French system, the president sets general policies and the prime minister is responsible for day-to-day government management, meaning the latter often pays the price when an administration runs into turbulence.

The appointment of Attal had been expected, although the absence of a swift announcement fuelled talk that heavyweight government figures were unhappy over the meteoric promotion of a man known sometimes by fellow ministers as “young Gabriel”.

Sources close to those said to be behind the tensions, including Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, denied this.

Darmanin is expected to remain in his post.

“Gerald Darmanin had an exchange with the president who expressed his confidence in him: he is guaranteed to stay in Beauvau (the interior ministry) as he wished,” a source close to the minister told AFP.

 

– ‘Offensive strategy’ –
Commentators see the reshuffle as essential to relaunch Macron’s centrist presidency for its last three years and prevent him becoming a “lame duck” leader after a series of crises.

Since he defeated the far right to win a second term in 2022, Macron has faced protests over unpopular pension reforms, the loss of his overall majority in parliamentary elections and controversy over immigration legislation.

With Macron unable to run again in 2027, ministers have publicly aired concerns that Le Pen has her best chance yet to win the presidency.

Attal will go toe-to-toe ahead of the European elections with another rising star of French politics, the even younger Jordan Bardella, 28, who is now party leader of the far-right RN.

Constitutional expert Benjamin Morel told AFP that Attal’s appointment signals a “very offensive strategy with a view to the European elections” in June.