Can Gabriel Attal save Emmanuel Macron? France’s new Prime Minister is 34 years old – the youngest in the republic’s history. He looks, quite strikingly, like an even younger version of the 46-year-old president. He replaces Élisabeth Borne, a woman nearly twice his age, who failed to turn the government’s fortunes around. Will Attal do it?
The French press is divided. As countless profiles have pointed out, Attal’s rise through the ranks has been remarkably quick. Twelve years ago, he was an intern at the health ministry. Though originally a member of the Parti Socialiste, he joined Macron at En Marche in 2016, much earlier than many.
The party gained power a year later and Attal has, since then, served as an En Marche spokesperson, a secretary of state at the ministry for education, a government spokesperson, the minister for public action and accounts, and the minister for national education and youth.
In this last job, which he only held for five months, he divided public opinion by banning abayas in school, among other right-leaning decisions. Attal might have begun his political career as a left-wing student, but those days are far behind him.
This may explain why some newspapers weren’t thrilled by the appointment. “With Gabriel Attal at Matignon, the rightward turn of macronism has been confirmed”, centre-left Liberation wrote. “[His appointment] acknowledges the fact that nothing changes in Macronie”. Elsewhere, the publication poked fun at the two men’s physical and ideological resemblance, noting that the president had picked “the youngest of his doubles”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sentiment was echoed by Olivier Faure, now leader of the Socialist Party. “Emmanuel Macron succeeds himself, then. ‘Everything must change so that nothing changes…’” he posted on Twitter.
Though coming from the other side of the political aisle, Le Figaro reached a similar conclusion. “His youth is not refreshing,” they wrote pithily, adding that the move “is neither a rupture nor a renewal”. In short: more of the same but, tellingly, with more enthusiasm coming from the right than the left.
Still, there was one dissenting voice to be found, in the left-leaning Le Monde. According to the columnist Solenn de Royer, Gabriel Attal actually is a break from tradition for the French president.
“For the first time perhaps, since 2017, this President of the Republic who so wanted to show that he was self-sufficient is suggesting that he needs to be seconded, one would dare say… helped. In short, he needs someone at his side, endowed with particular talents (energy, ambition, political sense)… to relaunch a stalled five-year term.”
“Until now, Macron had always sent the same profile to rue de Varenne: senior civil servants, fine connoisseurs of the state, but totally unknown to the French and without the slightest political weight.”
It’s an astute remark. Édouard Philippe, Jean Castex and Élisabeth Borne all fit the same profile, and it is worth noting that, when Philippe started becoming popular in his own right, Macron got rid of him.
Gabriel Attal was already well-known and well-liked by the time he got appointed, and was the most popular minister in government for a spell. According to a snap poll commissioned by Le Figaro, half of French voters were satisfied by the appointment.
This is significant, both because, as de Royer pointed out, Macron has officially realised that he needs all the help he can get, but also because he is now clearly looking to the future. The next presidential election is in three years, meaning that the president only has a limited amount of time left to cement his legacy.
As things currently stand, it is entirely possible that his party will be remembered by history as a one-man band, which got one person to power then vanished into the ether. That is presumably not what he wants to happen, and it means that Macron must now work hard to keep En Marche up in the polls, and find someone who will be able to replace him in 2027.
Could that person be Gabriel Attal? At this point it’s hard to say, but his appointment may well be remembered as an important turning point in the Macron presidency. He looks and sounds like “more of the same” when really he’s anything but.