To breathe new life into his turbulent second term and to limit likely gains for the far right in the forthcoming June European elections, President Emmanuel Macron appointed media darling 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as his new Prime Minister on January 9, 2024. The, now former, Minister for Education succeeded Elisabeth Borne, who was in office since July 2022. His youth and ability to capture media’s attention might be just what Macron needs to re-energize his voters ahead of the June European election. At the same time, Attal will still have to contend with significant challenges, both within his own party as well as in the broader French political landscape, if he is to successfully solidify his position in the longer term.
At 34, Attal becomes the youngest Prime Minister of the 5th Republic. Often referred to as a “junior Macron” owing to personality traits he shares with the President, such as his ambition and media savviness, he is also the first openly gay French Prime Minister.
A former Socialist, Gabriel Attal rallied Emmanuel Macron in 2016 and enjoyed a meteoric rise ever since. He quickly established himself as a key and popular figure of the presidential camp. Under Macron’s terms, he successively held the positions of MP, Junior Minister to the Minister of Education and Youth, government spokesperson, Deputy Minister in charge of Public Accounts, and, most recently, Minister for Education and Youth.
Since July 2023, Attal’s stint as Minister for Education was decisive. In just five months, Attal multiplied punchy announcements and media appearances on heated topics. He pushed for the ban of the abaya – a traditional Muslim garb – in schools, fought school harassment, advocated for experiments on uniforms in French schools, and brought up the level of students in French and mathematics. He consistently showed firmness, which garnered him the appreciation of a large chunk of the public. Another key moment in his rise to fame was a recent interview he gave French television in November 2023, in which he opened up and revealed that he had experienced bullying in middle school, sparking a larger conversation throughout the country. Impactful media interventions ultimately led Attal’s popularity to shoot up in opinion polls that showed him as France’s most popular politician in late December 2023.
And Macron could use his protégé’s popularity to try to revive his own. With a more political profile than that of his predecessors, Gabriel Attal’s appointment underlines the President’s desire to go back to what made him successful in the first place. “I know I can count on your energy and commitment to implement the project of rearmament and regeneration that I have announced, in keeping with the spirit of 2017: surpassing and daring”, commented the President on the day he appointed his new PM. However, the figures chosen to lead the new government, which seems to be making new with old, while also shifting to the right, seem to nuance this sense of renewed impetus.
Moreover, Emmanuel Macron wants to keep his hands on the wheel and will likely keep an eye on his Prime Minister’s activities. Case in point, Attal’s chief of staff, Emmanuel Moulin, was Macron’s choice. Moulin has been Director General of the French Treasury since 2020 and is a close ally of Macron’s powerful second in command Alexis Kohler, the general secretary of the Elysée Palace. Moulin’s appointment by the PM’s side shows that the President wants to keep an eye on him. In addition, the new government only came about after Macron negotiated with heavyweight incumbents such as Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, as well as with newly appointed Ministers coming from the conservative party such as Rachida Dati for the Culture and Catherine Vautrin for Labor, Health and Solidarities.
Attal’s main role in the new government is to media relations. Since his first day in office, he has already made countless media appearances on his priorities. These include school, in his own words “the mother of our battles”, the public healthcare sector crisis, as well as rising unemployment and cost of living that are battering the middle classes, which he terms “the beating heart of our country”. He should further expand on those priorities in his forthcoming January 30 general policy speech to Parliament, which, barring a surprise, should not result in a vote of confidence.
Questions remain as to the new Prime Minister’s guiding political line and his ability to carry it out. Described by some as isolated within the government, his challenge will be to become a true team leader for the majority, particularly in view of the European elections in June 2024.
Two days after appointing the new PM, Macron took up Attal’s proposal and named a first batch of ministers. In order to face the European elections on June 9, the new government is more political than the previous administration. This has meant the departure of several members of civil society, in favor of more experienced politicians.
The new government also marks shift to the right, reflecting a recent poll showing that the French population is leaning toward the right side of the political spectrum. Out of 14 Ministers, the main portfolios are now held by former members of the right political group Les Républicains. Disappointingly, only 4 out of 11 full Ministers are women, with none of them having a so-called “regalian” portfolio, such as defense, foreign affairs or finance.
The incumbent heavyweights have been maintained in their positions. This includes Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire, Domestic Affairs Minister Gérald Darmanin and Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti. Given their veterancy, some commentators have raised doubts about Attal’s ability to lead his administration effectively and to those ministers’ willingness to follow the instructions of such a young superior.
Among the heavyweights, Bruno Le Maire has emerged especially strong from this reshuffle. Minister for Economy, Finance, Industrial and Digital Sovereignty for 7 years, he was reappointed and saw the crucial Energy sector added to his portfolio. Energy is shaping up to be a key issue in 2024’s political agenda. A bill on energy sovereignty will soon be presented in Parliament and the publication of major decrees laying out France’s energy and climate strategy is impending.
In Parliament, one of Attal’s main tasks will be to compose with the lack of a clear majority, a stubborn thorn in Macron’s reformist ambitious. Since 2022, the presidential majority has had to gather majorities text by text. As a result, the health and general budget bills for 2024 required the frequent use of Article 49 Paragraph 3 of the French Constitution, which allows the government to pass bills without a vote. Opposition parties of all persuasion, and a significant portion of the population, are very dissatisfied with this modus operandi.
Macron’s shift to the right could divide even more the presidential camp in Parliament, with a risk of losing disaffected MPs with center-left sensibilities. This could be an opportunity for the left to gain steam and rebuild a union without the third man of the last 2022 presidential election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, with a hope to form a true left-wing alternative in the upcoming European and 2027 presidential election.
As is to be expected, Attal has already promised to “always listen” to opposition parties. Initiator of the “Bercy dialogues” at the Ministry of the Economy, a process which included opposition forces in the preparation of the 2023 budget, he maintained good relations with conservative party Les Républicains. However, Macron’s unexpected poaching of the feisty Rachida Dati, who had been a leading Les Républicains figure up to that point, as Attal’s Minister of Culture might sour those cordial relations with the conservative party.
Attal’s appointment as PM seeks to re-energize Macron’s embattled second mandate. The new number 2’s youth and media-savviness already contrast with his predecessor’s more technocratic style. However, structural challenges, like the lack of a stable majority in Parliament for the president’s party, as well as more internal frictions between the young upstart and more established heavyweights, will be challenging for the new government.
Attal faces his first real test with the June European elections. Macron’s party is trailing Marine Le Pen’s far-right formation, a phenomenon amplified by widespread public discontent over surging living costs and last year’s heavily contested pension reform. Attal is a natural counterpart to Le Pen’s own protégé, 28 years old Jordan Bardella, currently the fourth most popular political figure in France. The new PM needs to become an effective team leader and muster his ranks if he is to buck the trend.
Within Macron’s own ranks, the reshuffle is likely to intensify the search for a successor with a view to the next presidential election in 2027. Former PM Edouard Philippe, as well as current heavyweight ministers Gérald Darmanin and Bruno Le Maire are all seen as potential candidates. It remains to be seen whether fast-rising Gabriel Attal can use his new position to get ahead of the veterans.