France's new Prime Minister needs to succeed in the court of public popularity

Gabriel Attal faces a few formidable tasks, one of which is winning over disenchanted voters

Outgoing Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne stands next to her successor Gabriel Attal as she speaks at the handover ceremony in Paris. EPA
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The next time political pundits mock British Conservatives for having worked their way, with scant success, through so many prime ministers – five in their 13 years of power – they should perhaps cast a glance across the English Channel at France, where an unpopular President, Emmanuel Macron, has announced his fourth in just seven years of office.

Mr Macron’s choice as successor to the earnest but beleaguered Elisabeth Borne is the youngest to hold the office in modern times. Gabriel Attal, just 34, has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top and is regarded as the best-liked member of the centrist government, even though the administration’s inability to win public hearts and minds suggests he is merely the figure voters dislike least.

In many ways, Mr Attal is the mirror image of the President who, for now, is also his cheerleader.

Both fiercely intelligent, they were members of France’s socialist party before deciding the way forward for France – and possibly in their own interests, too – was to try to bridge the classic left-right divide in French politics.

And both have belonged since Mr Macron’s landslide presidential victory in 2017 to a power base with a stream of disappointments that has enabled the far right to present itself as a presidency and government in waiting.

Mr Macron got on in life, notably as a highly successful investment banker with Rothschild, despite twice failing to gain entry to the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure, instead making do with a philosophy degree at Paris Nanterre University. Mr Attal, of half-Tunisian Jewish descent, attended the elite, private Parisian school, Ecole Alsacienne, before graduating in law, followed by a master’s in public affairs.

Openly gay, he was formerly the partner of Stephane Sejourne, a member of the European Parliament and general secretary of Mr Macron’s Renaissance party who has now been appointed Europe minister in Mr Attal’s first government.

Two dynamic men with elevated debating skills, they see the far right as a dangerous anti-republican affront to democracy. But in common with all French political groups that aspire to power, both have proved willing to adopt policies and philosophies that go beyond mere lip service to the pre-occupations and fears that tempt so many to vote for Marine Le Pen, who also has an able young lieutenant, Jordan Bardella.

Opponents detected the scent of strategic Islamophobia when Mr Attal, as education minister, began the present school year by banning schoolgirls from wearing the abaya, a measure he defended as protecting France’s cherished secular values.

But there is little evidence that such steps, insufficient to appease the far right and seen as discriminatory even by moderate Muslims, are assured significant vote-winners.

The task Mr Attal faces, therefore, is formidable.

On the plus side, his appointment represents rupture with a recent history of functional prime ministers overshadowed by the real power, that of the president. Few eyelids flickered when Mr Macron replaced Ms Borne’s predecessors: Edouard Philippe (a departure from office surprising only because he enjoyed decent levels of public approval) and the competent if uninspiring Jean Castex.

Centrists of the Macron-Attal mould have to rely on talent and charisma to overcome fixed loyalties, now complicated by the advances of Ms Le Pen

However, it is unlikely to have an impact immediate and strong enough to stop Ms Le Pen’s National Rally populists making big advances in June’s European parliamentary elections.

Indeed, Mr Attal is confronted by the same key obstacle to smooth government that held back and ultimately helped to render Ms Borne ineffective: the lack of an overall majority in the National Assembly, a hung parliament that may potentially force him to resort as she did to the despised Article 49.3 that permits a bill to be passed without a vote. This can be invoked only once in each parliamentary session except, crucially, on state and social security budgets, where its use is unrestricted.

With no historic electoral catchment area, centrists of the Macron-Attal mould have to rely on talent and charisma to overcome fixed loyalties, now complicated by the advances of Ms Le Pen. Mr Macron felt like a breath of fresh air in 2017 when he swept into the Elysee Palace on a tide of enthusiasm and youthful hope but has since struggled to shake off perceptions that he is a “president for the rich”.

Ms Borne served 20 months; if Mr Attal survives any fallout from bad European election results, matching the length of her term in office would still leave him a further 20 months from the next presidential elections. Mr Macron must stand down when his second five-year presidency ends in the spring of 2027, assuming he does not choose to leave office sooner. But if he sees his new prime minister as his heir, there is plenty of scope for things to go badly wrong between now and then.

Mr Attal, like all recent predecessors, will see himself as a reformer. But the reality of French politics is that whereas voters often acknowledge the need for France to change, each attempt to bring this about in any meaningful way meets resistance. The trade unions and assorted single-interest groups, from farmers and fishermen to power station workers and dustmen, see the voice of the street, strikes and blockades included, as parallel democracy.

We await a clear idea of what Mr Attal as Prime Minister will stand for, beyond being a committed Macronist and, as education minister, wanting to stamp out school bullying (he was bullied himself as a boy) and tinker with arrangements for the Baccalaureate examinations taken at the end of secondary school life.

Admirers say he was sound in the finance and health ministries and faultless at education. Critics found him hyperactive but ultimately too short-lived in ministerial roles to see ideas through. One teaching union leader, Sophie Venetitay, told the broadcaster France Info he left the impression, after less than six months as education minister, of having been “a man in a hurry who used education as a political springboard”.

In debate on serious issues, Mr Attal is unlikely to bettered by the likes of Ms Le Pen. Few astute observers see her brand of populism rife in Europe as offering the French economy anything beyond dodgy visions of protectionism.

But her impressive drive to thrust off her party’s historically toxic image, with racism and anti-Semitism widely seen as stocks in trade, is a lesson for all those eager to restore faith in conventional political movements. “I don’t want her as president,” says a French relative who has traditionally voted centre right. “But it is as well there cannot be a third run-off between her and Macron. Otherwise, I’d vote blank.”

Mr Attal has said he “owes everything” to Mr Macron. His monumental challenge, whether or not he sees himself as presidential material for 2027, is to repay that debt, succeed in the court of public popularity where his champion has failed and win back those voters disenchanted with politics and those who practise it.

Published: January 10, 2024, 2:00 PM
Updated: January 13, 2024, 6:05 PM