Gabriel Attal, France's new Prime Minister, gained popularity with Muslim dress ban

Politician of Jewish-Tunisian descent becomes France’s youngest prime minister, taking office after resignation of Elisabeth Borne

Gabriel Attal has been appointed French Prime Minister. AFP
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French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday chose one of his closest allies, Gabriel Attal, 34, to become the country’s new prime minister.

Called a “mini-Macron” by French media, Mr Attal is France’s youngest prime minister and succeeds Elisabeth Borne, 62, who resigned on Monday after unpopular pension and immigration reforms.

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

Mr Attal cemented his popularity among the public with a ban on Muslim dress in public schools, including abayas, during his previous tenure as education minister.

The far-right was quick to claim credit for Mr Attal’s high approval ratings, with vice president of the National Rally political party Louis Aliot telling radio RTL that he had “stolen” their ideas on the abaya ban and school uniforms.

“It’s great that he addresses strong public demands. For once, someone is tackling difficult topics – and those are our topics,” said Mr Aliot, who is also the former partner of France’s most influential far-right figure Marine Le Pen.

Some French TV commentators went as far as comparing Jordan Bardella, the 28-year-old president of the National Rally, with Mr Attal, who joined the socialist party at a young age and whose father of is of Jewish-Tunisian origin.

“Marine Le Pen invented Jordan Bardella. Emmanuel Macron created Gabriel Attal,” said journalist Pascal Praud on CNews television network.

In a poll, 39 per cent of respondents chose Mr Attal as their favourite politician, in front of Ms Le Pen (36 per cent) and Mr Bardella (34 per cent).

But analysts have pointed out that Mr Attal is above all Mr Macron’s best option as a prime minister as he seeks to re-invigorate his second mandate before European parliament elections and the Paris Olympic Games this summer.

They warned that Mr Attal's quick rise risks coming to a brutal end should anything go wrong in the coming months. That may include much-feared security and logistical issues during the Games or a bad result for Mr Macron's group in the elections.

A December poll shows that 31 per cent of French voters would choose the far-right, way ahead of centrist groups close to Mr Macron (21 per cent).

"Mr Macron is taking the risk of playing his best card ahead of two important milestones that may impact Mr Attal negatively," political scientist Christophe Boutin told The National. "He could have also appointed him in September."

Mr Attal joined his newly created political party in 2016, one year before Mr Macron was elected France's youngest president at age 39, and later became the party's spokesman.

"Dear Gabriel Attal, I know I can count on your energy and your commitment," wrote Mr Macron on X on Tuesday.

Mr Macron said that he expected Mr Attal to "surpass himself" and show "audacity" in the same way he did in 2017.

Three reasons explain Mr Attal's popularity, according to Mr Boutin.

"He speaks well, he acquired a strong visibility as a spokesperson and he implemented popular reforms as education minister,” he said.

Mr Attal’s ideas, including the abaya ban, are far removed from the far-right, argued Mr Boutin.

The ban proved widely popular across the political spectrum in a country with a deep-seated belief in “laicite” – the separation between church and state.

More than 80 per cent of the French public approved the ban, according to a poll published at the time.

Rather, Mr Attal was attempting to re-engage with republican ideas that seemed to have been neglected by his predecessor Pap Ndiaye, said Mr Boutin.

“He became popular because he went back to what is viewed as essential in the public education system. That includes reestablishing a dialogue with teachers,” he said.

“I don’t agree with the idea that Mr Attal’s ideas are inspired by the far-right.”

With presidential elections scheduled for 2027, some French commentators have also pointed at the possibility of Mr Attal running for president as a successor to Mr Macron, who cannot present himself again after two successive mandates.

Should that happen, Mr Attal would be breaking yet another record. No French prime minister has managed to be elected president.

Laurent Fabius, who held the previous record of youngest French prime minister when he was appointed in 1984 at age 37, tried but failed to become the socialist party’s nominee for the 2007 presidential election.

Updated: January 10, 2024, 3:10 PM