Macron makes Gabriel Attal, 34, France’s youngest-ever prime minister as he fights far right election threat

Macron makes Gabriel Attal, 34, France’s youngest-ever prime minister as he fights far right election threat

Emmanuel Macron has named 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as France’s new prime minister – the youngest in the country’s history.

Moving from the post of education minister, Mr Attal is the country’s most popular politician in recent opinion polls. He has made a name for himself as a savvy minister, at ease on radio shows and in parliament.

Mr Macron is seeking to put a bruising 2023 behind him, with pension and immigration reforms sparking protests and spats in parliament. Mr Macron lost his absolute majority shortly after being re-elected in 2022. He needs a boost to try and improve his chances of a good result in June’s European elections, where Mr Macron’s camp is facing a threat from the far right. Opinion polls show Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party ahead in opinion polls by around eight to 10 percentage points.

Mr Attal will also become the first openly gay prime minister in France’s history. He has a civil partnership with French MEP Stephane Sejourne, who is also close to Mr Macron. Mr Sejourne warned this week that an energetic campaign is needed to “convince people that there are other alternatives to radicalism, to extremes”. He also said that the wider issues that all European nations face – immigration, the climate crisis, and the threat from Russia – require action, with “populists and the extreme right” having “relied primarily on the inability [of national governments] to solve problems”.

It will now be the job of Mr Attal to lead the French government into those elections. Mr Macron, a staunch supporter of European integration, is deeply wary of both the far right and anti-EU populists gaining influence, with them rising in the polls in a number of nations, not least his own. A poor result for Mr Macron’s Renaissance party and any multi-party alliance they find themselves in will likely also hit Renaissance’s domestic standing. Mr Macron’s second term lasts until 2027, and he is constitutionally barred from a third consecutive term.

France’s president Emmanuel Macron with Attal (AFP via Getty Images)
France’s president Emmanuel Macron with Attal (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Attal’s appointment is certainly an eye-catching one, with the combined age of Mr Attal and Mr Macron, 46, a year less than that of US President Joe Biden. “The youngest president in [France’s] history is appointing the youngest prime minister in [France’s] history. I want to see it as a symbol of audacity,” Mr Attal said. Polls show that he is by far the most admired member of the Macron government - competing at the same level as the president’s main enemy, Ms Le Pen, and her 28-year-old colleague Jordan Bardella.

‘’I know I can count on your energy and your commitment,” Mr Macron posted on Twitter/X in a message to Mr Attal. The president made a reference to Mr Attal reviving the ‘’spirit of 2017”. That was the year Macron shook up French politics, and shot to a surprise victory as France’s youngest-ever president on a pro-business centrist platform aimed at reviving one of the world’s biggest economies. Mr Macron will work with Mr Attal to name a new government in the coming days, though some key ministers are expected to continue in their posts.

Mr Attal’s rise has been rapid. A decade ago he was an obscure advisor in the health ministry. According to friends, Mr Attal’s political ambition was set in motion when he attended a demonstration against Jean-Marie Le Pen, Marine’s father, when the far right leader was voted into the second round presidential run-off against Jacques Chirac in 2002. He joined the Socialist party in 2006, before leaving to join Macron’s newly formed centrist political party En Marche, which later became La Republique En Marche (LREM) and then Renaissance. He was seemingly inspired by Mr Macron’s vow to reset the rulebook of centrist politics.

He rose to become a government spokesperson from 2020 to 2022, during the Covid-19 pandemic, a job that made him well known to the French public. He was then named budget minister before being appointed in July as education minister, one of the most prestigious positions in the French government.

Macron is trying to head off the threat of the populist and popular politician Marine Le Pen (AFP via Getty Images)
Macron is trying to head off the threat of the populist and popular politician Marine Le Pen (AFP via Getty Images)

Mr Attal quickly announced a ban on long robes in classrooms, which took effect with the new school year in September, saying the garments worn mainly by Muslims were testing secularism in the schools, a typically no-nonsense decision.

MP Patrick Vignal, who belongs to Mr Macron’s Renaissance party, said Mr Attal is “a bit like the Macron of 2017” and that he “is clear, he has authority”.

Mr Attal is well respected in parliament, but he will face the same issues that his predecessor Elisabeth Borne did over her 20 months in the post. Namely, a resurgent Ms Le Pen, a parliament where pushing through new laws is a struggle thanks to the lack of a government majority, and a president in Mr Macron who seems unable to define what he wants his second term to achieve.

Opposition leaders were quick to say they did not expect much from the change in prime minister, with Mr Macron himself taking on much of the decision making. “Elisabeth Borne, Gabriel Attal or someone else, I don’t care, it will just be the same policies,” Socialist Party leader Olivier Faure told France Inter radio. Some politicians also pointed to Mr Attal’s privileged Parisian background and sought to paint him as out of touch with the needs of French citizens during a cost of living crisis.

“By appointing Gabriel Attal ... Emmanuel Macron wants to cling to his popularity in opinion polls to alleviate the pain of an interminable end to his reign,” Mr Bardella, the president of the National Rally party said. “Instead, he risks taking the short-lived education minister with him in his fall.”

But Mr Macron will be hoping that his new prime minister is being underestimated, knowing that he is used to having to fight his corner. The son of Yves Attal, a lawyer and film producer of Tunisian-Jewish descent who died in 2015, and Marie de Couriss, who is descended from Orthodox Christians from Odesa in Ukraine, Mr Attal told Liberation: “My father said to me, ‘Perhaps you’re Orthodox but you’ll feel Jewish all your life, mainly because you’ll suffer antisemitism because of your name’.” Mr Attal also recently told on national television how he suffered bullying at middle school, including homophobic harassment.

“Too many French doubt our country, doubt themselves or our future. I think in particular of the middle class ... who get up every morning to go to work ... and sometimes can’t make ends meet,” Mr Attal said after the aannouncement, promising to work to “control our destiny and free up France’s potential”.