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Macron appoints youngest ever prime minister: Gabriel Attal, ‘child prodigy’ of French politics

At age 34, the until now education minister is taking over from the embattled Élisabeth Borne in a bid to relaunch the president’s popularity

Gabriel Attal
The newly appointed French Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, at the Élysée Palace in Paris, on December 12, 2023.LUDOVIC MARIN (AFP)
Marc Bassets

Gabriel Attal, who was named the new prime minister of France on Tuesday, is a political prodigy. At the age of 22 he was already an advisor in a ministry. At 29, he was secretary of state at the Ministry of Education and Youth. Later he was government spokesperson, minister of public accounts, and until now he was the education minister. On Tuesday, President Emmanuel Macron appointed him to succeed Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, making him the youngest individual to hold this position under the Fifth Republic, the constitutional regime founded in 1958 by General De Gaulle. His name is already being mentioned as a potential successor to Macron in the Élysée Palace.

Macron trusts that Borne’s departure and Attal’s appointment will give a boost to a term that seems to be mired in crisis mode, three years before the next presidential election is scheduled to be held. Without an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the president’s room for maneuver is limited. In office since May 2022, the prime minister had achieved legislative successes, such as the approval of the unpopular pension reform. But, like all the holders of that position, she was the president’s shield: when things get dicey, the prime minister is the first to go. And the recent immigration law, adopted with the favorable vote of the far right, divided the government and accelerated Borne’s departure.

In style and trajectory, few prime ministers are as different as Borne and Attal. Borne is 62, almost twice as old as Attal. She is a technocrat who is very familiar with the inner workings of the administration and a woman without further political ambitions. She did not belong to Macron’s circle of trust. Attal, a politician with a brilliant career who aspires to the highest office, is a trusted aide to the president. Both share the same ideological origins. Both Borne and Attal worked with socialist ministers before turning to Macronism.

Borne said at the handover ceremony: “I have often enough been able to see that there is still a long way to go in terms of equality between men and women. So I say to all women: do not let up, the future belongs to you.” She has been the second woman to hold that office in the Fifth Republic after 20 months in the post, twice as long as the first, Edith Cresson. On average, prime ministers spend two and a half years in office. Speaking in the courtyard of the official residence of the prime minister, the Hôtel Matignon, Attal made remarks of his own about his age: “I want to see here nothing but a symbol, that of audacity and movement, and the symbol also of the trust granted to youth, to this generation that deserves to have us fight for it relentlessly.”

France's outgoing Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne delivers a speech next to newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal during the handover ceremony in Paris, France, on January 9, 2024.
France's outgoing Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne delivers a speech next to newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal during the handover ceremony in Paris, France, on January 9, 2024. POOL (via REUTERS)

The previous youngest prime minister was Laurent Fabius, appointed at age 37 by the socialist François Mitterrand. Fabius was another child prodigy, although he never became president. Today he presides over the Constitutional Council. Macron himself was also a child prodigy. When he arrived at the Élysée in 2017 he was 39 years old. And there is something about Attal that makes one think Little Macron. A brilliant academic record, rhetorical skills, an audacious and precocious personality. Today he is the most popular minister in France, attracting the kind of admiration that, as the current president knows from personal experience, can easily turn into irritation and resentment.

Attal is a product of the elite of the Rive Gauche, the left bank of the Seine, and comes from a bourgeois and intellectual background. His father, who died in 2015, was a film producer who participated in films such as High Heels by Pedro Almodóvar. He studied at the prestigious École alsatienne and at Sciences Po. He learned the rudiments of politics in the cabinet of the socialist minister Marisol Touraine. It was then that he came into contact with the group of advisors loaded with diplomas and ambition that surrounded the economy minister under President François Hollande. The minister’s name was Emmanuel Macron. There he met his sentimental partner, Stéphane Séjourné, leader of the Renew Europe group in the European Parliament and a loyal collaborator of Macron since the beginning of his political career, in the middle of the last decade.

Attal and Sejourné, a possible candidate of the Macronist party in the European elections in June, form what Le Monde called a few years ago a “power couple.” The appointment signals Macron’s willingness to return to his origins, to the hard core of collaborators who helped him conquer power seven years ago.

Behind the appointment is the power struggle to succeed Macron, who, after two terms, cannot run again in 2027. Potential candidates include heavyweights like Bruno Le Maire and Gérald Darmanin, both currently serving as ministers. But there is no precedent for a prime minister going directly to the position of president.

Attal’s ideology is difficult to define. He comes from the Socialist Party and has been assigned to the progressive wing of Macronism. In his brief spell at the Ministry of Education, where he was appointed last July, his popularity skyrocketed and he was showered with praise, also from the right, with measures such as the ban in classrooms of the abaya, the traditional female tunic in some Muslim countries. He has promoted a plan to experiment with school uniforms. And he has made the fight against bullying his priority, with the overarching goal of restoring authority at schools.

There is, in Attal’s appointment, a desire for generational change. The other rising star in French politics is Jordan Bardella, president of the National Rally, heir to the old far-right National Front. Bardella, Marine Le Pen’s right-hand man, is 28 years old. He will be the party’s candidate in the European elections, perhaps running against Séjourné, and he is the clear favorite to win. The first test for the new prime minister will be the EU elections. A comprehensive defeat for the Macronists against the far right would be a blow for Macron. But, as usual, he will have someone to take the heat: the prime minister, who always walks a tightrope.

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