Gabriel Attal becomes France’s youngest prime minister in modern history

PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 20: French Education Minister Gabriel Attal during the weekly cabinet meeting at the presidential Elysee Palace on December 20 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Christian Liewig – Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday named Gabriel Attal as the country’s new prime minister, as he seeks to set a fresh course ahead of the summer’s European Union elections.

Attal, the current education minister, will become the youngest person to occupy France’s second-highest office at 34 years old.

It follows the apparently reluctant resignation of Elisabeth Borne on Monday, who said in a letter that she had been informed it was Macron’s wish. Borne said it was “more necessary than ever to continue the reforms” being carried out by the government.

In France, the prime minister leads the government and is appointed by, but cannot be directly dismissed by, the president.

Attal will take office Tuesday afternoon, and make his first trip in the post to the flooded Pas-de-Calais region the same day.

Macron and Borne struggled through a turbulent 2023, with the government narrowly avoiding being toppled amid lawmaker and public opposition to its move to raise the retirement age.

PARIS, FRANCE – DECEMBER 20: French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne during the weekly cabinet meeting at the presidential Elysee Palace on December 20 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Christian Liewig – Corbis/Getty Images)

Christian Liewig – Corbis | Corbis News | Getty Images

The government suffered another blow in December, when an initial draft of an immigration bill seen as a signature Macron policy was voted down. It eventually passed after it was redrafted to become more hardline.

Macron’s personal disapproval rating is currently 68%, according to a Politico aggregate of polls.

Ensemble, a liberal coalition comprising Macron’s Renaissance party, is trailing both the far-right National Rally and left-wing New Ecological and Social People’s Union.

Attal, a close ally of Macron, is the most popular government minister, polls suggest. He will be the first openly gay prime minister of France.

“I know I can count on your energy and your commitment to implement the rearmament and regeneration project that I announced,” Macron said on X, formerly Twitter, addressing Attal.

The political move comes ahead of elections for the European Parliament in June, in which Renaissance and its centrist coalition is seeking to avoid an embarrassing blow.

The choice of the relatively junior Attal, rather than one of several more senior ministers who were reportedly vying for the role, was likely an effort to avoid infighting within the party ahead of the elections, political consultant Julien Hoez told CNBC.

“There have been many rumors of friction between Macron and Borne, with Borne resistant to be seen as the sacrificial lamb fronting the government’s less popular positions,” Hoez said by phone.

“With all the drama of last year, the riots that were never properly responded to, the immigration law fiasco, the pension reform, Macron likely thought the time had come to move on and provide a palate cleanser.”

“Attal is reasonably well known, with a reputation for working hard. But overall policy is not going to change much from Macron’s existing agenda,” he added.

A police officer gestures, during riots following the death of Nahel, a 17-year-old teenager killed by a French police officer in Nanterre during a traffic stop, at Champs Elysees in Paris, France, July 1, 2023.

Nacho Doce | Reuters

Macron will likely use the second half of his final term to push less divisive policies, including around crime and anti-social behavior, Mujtaba Rahman, a managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, said in a research note.

Meanwhile, Attal will be used as the “face of Macronism” in the European elections, which will see a contest against National Front President Jordan Bardella, who is just 28, Rahman said.

Attal left the Socialist Party in 2016 to support Macron’s presidential campaign in 2017. He has been in government since 2018, with roles including secretary of state for the youth and budget minister.

As education minister, he announced a ban on wearing the abaya, a long over-garment worn by some Muslim women, in schools.

On Tuesday, leftist political leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon accused Attal of returning to his role of government spokesman, which he held in 2020.

“The office of prime minister disappears. The presidential monarch governs alone with his court,” Mélenchon wrote on X, referencing the criticism that Macron is a micromanager who has increasingly centralized power.

French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, discusses the economy, ECB, and investing in France.

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