France’s Change of Prime Minister Won’t Revive Emmanuel Macron’s Government

Emmanuel Macron has appointed 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as France’s new prime minister. The bid to give his government a new progressive face suffers one big problem: French people haven’t forgotten its deeply anti-social record.

French president Emmanuel Macron (R) shakes hands with newly appointed prime minister Gabriel Attal (L) in Paris on November 11, 2023. (Ludovic MARIN / AFP via Getty Images)

Ending her nineteen-month stint as French prime minister on Monday, Élisabeth Borne seemed keen to remind us that she was, despite all evidence to the contrary, a woman of the Left. Making clear that she was not going willingly, Borne’s resignation statement near-directly echoed the words with which the Socialist Michel Rocard had left the prime minister’s office back in 1991. Borne’s reference to the center-left governments of decades past was, Le Monde observed, a symbol of her “left-wing reference points” — even if her administration’s final act was “the passing of an immigration reform hailed by the far-right as its own ‘ideological victory.’”

The legislation Borne passed last month with the help of conservative opposition MPs punitively tightened the rules on migration, causing upset even among some more liberal Macronites. It limits access to benefits, places an overall cap on the number of foreigners arriving, and makes it easier to expel “delinquents” even if they are not criminal convicts. Yet this wasn’t the only reason why this was one of the most reactionary governments in recent memory. Most importantly, it raised the retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four despite months of massive social opposition. Last year it also slashed benefits to jobseekers, imposing a 25 percent cut in the duration of payouts in times of modest overall unemployment.

If this program was surely an ambitious assault on France’s social model, Borne is often cast as a “lame duck” prime minister, lacking a strong base of support. Macron appointed her upon his reelection as president in May 2022, before then losing his parliamentary majority in that June’s elections for the National Assembly. With only 250 of 577 legislators to count on, Borne’s government typically negotiated opposition help (normally meaning Les Républicains, a once-mighty Gaullist-conservative force) or else used 49.3, a constitutional article allowing it to pass bills without votes in parliament. While the Left, notably Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise, fiercely denounced Borne’s continual reliance on this measure as undemocratic, she justified it by citing its past use by governments like Rocard’s.

Upon his first, successful presidential campaign in 2017, the shiny young Macron had promised to unite “both left and right.” Himself finance minister in the previous Socialist government, Macron pursued what scholars Stefano Palombarini and Bruno Amable called a “bourgeois bloc,” uniting former Socialist, Gaullist, and centrist forces in the name of resisting “populism,” and turning France into a glitzy “start-up nation.” Borne — a career technocrat and one-time head of the Paris public transport authority, but also ex-chief of staff to Socialist ecology minister, Ségolène Royal — belonged to the notionally “left” part of this coalition. As transport minister in 2017–19, she waged war on rail unions and advanced the privatization of France’s trains. Still, her 2022 appointment as prime minister in place of Gaullist Jean Castex was seen as a sop to Macronite “progressives.”

Less than two years on, Macron is again trying to reboot his government by giving it a new face. The new prime minister announced on Tuesday, Gabriel Attal — a previous minister of public accounts, who more recently took up the national education brief — is again heralded as part of the “left wing” of Macron’s majority. Attal is, compared to Borne, a far more assured media performer; he often fronted the government’s defense of its pension reform, including in a series of clashes with left-winger Mélenchon. The rise of the thirty-four-year-old, who will also be France’s first openly gay prime minister, dimly echoes the initial rise of Macron himself as a young liberal “upstart,” and he is rumored to be a possible presidential candidate in 2027, alongside other potential leaders of the center/center-right bloc, like Édouard Philippe.

How is this both “left and right”? Macron’s government surely makes some continued efforts to retain its “social-liberal” trappings: notably, a plan to introduce the right to abortion into the constitution within the coming year. Yet its fight against Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) is today taking place on a decidedly more right-wing and national-identitarian terrain than upon Macron’s first election in 2017. This far-right party is increasingly welcomed into mainstream respectability, whereas the greater heft of demonization is instead directed against what Macron ministers call the “Islamo-left” of France Insoumise. As education minister, Attal himself recently demonstrated the government’s determination to not be seen as “soft on Islam,” in August banning the wearing of the abaya (a loose-fitting dress worn by a few hundred Muslim girls) in classrooms.

Attal is touted as a strong communicator, at a time when the Rassemblement National’s Jordan Bardella is making all the running for June’s European election. Already in the last such vote five years ago the far right edged ahead of Macron’s party, but current polls have Le Pen’s list closer to ten percentage points ahead. The combined forces of the Left, which had in 2022 formed the New Ecological and Social Popular Union or NUPES alliance, total around the same support as the RN — but their forces are fatally split. Clashes over the war in Gaza put a formal end to the alliance. Yet the deeper problem lay in center-left parties’ long-time dislike of France Insoumise’s leadership, and an unwillingness to let its influence extend to the European and municipal levels where they retain more support. Yet there is also a broader problem. In general, the far right is doing better at mobilizing different kinds of dissent, tearing voters from the center-right but also capturing much working-class dissatisfaction with Macronite social policy.

With Attal’s arrival, France’s political leadership is again getting younger, even as most workers’ careers stretch deeper into old age. Not only the adoption of punitive policies on migration, but also this social divide — elite contempt for working-class France and the material consequences of pension and welfare reforms — are collapsing the old “center-left” and adding to the Le Pen vote. For France Insoumise, denouncing a lack of democratic process under Macron — today demanding that Attal’s premiership should be subject to a confidence vote in the National Assembly — helps cast itself as the voice of the ignored and unrepresented. Yet across much of peri-urban and rural France, the Rassemblement National is having much more success in this sense, fusing a largely platonic defense of France’s social model with an only vague economic agenda designed to be all things to all people.

What chance of stopping it? One of few instances where Borne gave a sense of her sense of being “of the left” was when she called the Rassemblement National the “heirs of Pétain,” rejecting the “normalization of this party.” Formally correct, and quite justifiable from this daughter of a Holocaust survivor, this sharp condemnation of Le Pen’s party, however, clashes with the continual indulgence of its arguments on migration and national identity — and indeed, playing into its hands by feeding the social dissent that allows its message to land. More than three years out from the presidential election, Le Pen’s eventual arrival as head of state is not quite assured. But, with Macron’s government not meaningfully changing course, it is becoming ever more likely. For a divided left, the Rassemblement National’s likely victory in June’s EU elections should be an urgent wake-up call.