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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

France gets its youngest and first openly gay prime minister

Gabriel Attal in 2019 (Wikipedia)

By Roger Cohen

In a typically bold bid to revitalize his second term, President Emmanuel Macron named Gabriel Attal, 34, as his new prime minister, replacing Élisabeth Borne, 62, who made no secret of the fact that she was unhappy to be forced out.

Attal, who was previously education minister and has occupied several government positions since Macron was elected in 2017, becomes France’s youngest and first openly gay prime minister. A recent Ipsos-Le Point opinion poll suggested he is France’s most popular politician, albeit with an approval rating of just 40%.

Macron, whose second term has been marked by protracted conflict over a pensions bill raising the legal retirement age to 64 from 62 and by a restrictive immigration bill that pleased the right, made clear that he saw in Attal a leader in his own disruptive image.

“I know that I can count on your energy and your commitment to push through the project of civic rearmament and regeneration that I have announced,” Macron said in a message addressed to Attal on X, formerly known as Twitter. “In loyalty to the spirit of 2017: transcendence and boldness.”

Macron was 39 when he sundered the French political system that year to become the youngest president in French history. Attal, a loyal ally of the president since he joined Macron’s campaign in 2016, will be 38 by the time of the next presidential election in April 2027, and would likely become a presidential candidate if his tenure in office is successful.

This prospect holds no attraction for an ambitious older French political guard, including Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, and Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, whose presidential ambitions are no secret. But for Macron, who is term-limited, it would place a protégé in the succession mix.

“My aim will be to keep control of our destiny and unleash our French potential,” Attal said after his appointment.

Standing in the bitter cold at a ceremony alongside Borne, in the courtyard of the prime minister’s residence, Attal said that his youth — and Macron’s — symbolized “boldness and movement.” But he also acknowledged that many in France were skeptical of their representatives.

Alain Duhamel, a prominent French author and political commentator, described Attal as “a true instinctive political talent and the most popular figure in an unpopular government.” But, he said, an enormous challenge would test Attal because “Macron’s second term has lacked clarity and been a time of drift, apart from two unpopular reforms.”

If France is by no means in crisis — its economy has proved relatively resilient despite inflationary pressures and foreign investment is pouring in — it has appeared at times to be in a not uncharacteristic funk, paralyzed politically, sharply divided and governable with an intermittent recourse to a constitutional tool that enables the passing of bills in the lower house without a vote.

Macron, not known for his patience, had grown weary of this sense of deadlock. He decided to force Borne out after 19 months although she had labored with great diligence in the trenches of his pension and immigration reforms. Reproach of her dogged performance was rare but she had none of the razzmatazz to which the president is susceptible.

“You have informed me of your desire to change prime minister,” Borne wrote in her letter of resignation, before noting how passionate she had been about her mission. Her unhappiness was clear.

In a word, Macron had fired Borne, as is the prerogative of any president of the Fifth Republic, and had done so on social media in a way that, as Sophie Coignard wrote in the weekly magazine Le Point, “singularly lacked elegance.”

But with elections to the European Parliament and the Paris Olympics looming this summer, Macron, whose own approval rating has sunk to 27%, wanted a change of governmental image.

“It’s a generational jolt and a clever communications coup,” said Philippe Labro, an author and political observer.

Attal has shown the kind of forcefulness and top-down authority Macron likes during his six months as education minister. He started last summer by declaring that “the abaya can no longer be worn in schools.”

His order, which applies to public middle and high schools, banished the loosefitting full-length robe worn by some Muslim students and ignited another storm over French identity. In line with the French commitment to “laïcité,” or roughly secularism, “You should not be able to distinguish or identify the students’ religion by looking at them,” Attal said.

The measure provoked protests among France’s large Muslim minority, who generally see no reason that young Muslim women should be told how to dress. But the French center-right and extreme right approved, and so did Macron.

In a measure that will go into effect in 2025, Attal also imposed more severe academic conditions on entry into high schools as a sign of his determination to reinstate discipline.

For these and other reasons, Attal is disliked on the left. Mathilde Panot, the leader of the parliamentary group of extreme left representatives from the France Unbowed party and part of the largest opposition group in the National Assembly, reacted to his appointment by describing Attal as “Mr. Macron Junior, a man who has specialized in arrogance and disdain.”

The comment amounted to a portent of the difficulties Attal is likely to face in the 577-seat Assembly, where Macron’s Renaissance Party and its allies do not hold an absolute majority. The change of prime minister has altered little or nothing for Macron in the difficult arithmetic of governing. His centrist coalition holds 250 seats.

Macron wants a more competitive, dynamic French state, but any new package of reforms that further cuts back the country’s elaborate state-funded social protection in order to curtail the budget deficit is likely to face overwhelming opposition. This will be just one of the many dilemmas facing the president’s chosen wunderkind.

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