France’s Youngest Ever Prime Minister Is Part of Macronism’s Shift to the Right

Attal’s vibes-based popularity won’t last for long.

by Olly Haynes

17 January 2024

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. Martin Bertrand / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect
French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal. Martin Bertrand / Hans Lucas via Reuters Connect

34-year-old Gabriel Attal, dubbed “baby Macron” by the press, became France’s youngest prime minister last week. Attal’s previous position as education minister lasted just half a year before he found himself catapulted into Matignon – the PM’s residence.

Attal’s youth has been the source of interest and commentary internationally – why appoint someone so young and inexperienced to high office? The simple reason is that unlike the rest of the Macronist political class, Attal is actually fairly popular.

Attal’s popularity owes in part to his youth and charisma. He is liked by older voters, in a dynamic reminiscent of Macron’s first presidential campaign, and he is a capable messenger of the government line to which he is unwaveringly loyal.

He has done well from a series of culture war victories and spectacular policy announcements, which have won him support among right-leaning members of the public. French newspaper Le Figaro reported that in March he was equally well regarded by supporters of the left-winger Jean Luc Mélenchon and the far-rightist Marine Le Pen. However, by his appointment as PM he had doubled his support among Le Pen voters, with whom his approval rating stands at 53%.

This bump in popularity among right-wingers is down to a mix of measures promoting conservative approaches to education and singling out Muslim students. He banned the Abayah, a robe often worn by Muslim girls, in schools. He also introduced the “shock of knowledge” reforms, a big restructuring of the education system with a view to make it more “meritocratic”, without significant injections of funding, that teaching unions say will increase inequality.

Macron’s government was deprived of its parliamentary majority in 2022 and has since been rocked by successive crises. These have ranged from street level mobilisations such as the strike wave against the widely despised pension reform, as well as the riots in the wake of the killing of Nahel Merzouk by police, to long-running scandals involving various ministers such as Eric Dupont-Moretti, the justice minister whose acquittal on charges of abuse of the office did not prevent serious reputational damage.

Macron also faces accusations of eroding democracy and empowering the far-right through near unprecedented use of article 49.3 of the constitution, which allows the Prime Minister to bypass parliament to pass laws, and through the passing of an immigration law hailed by Marine Le Pen as an ideological victory. Macron’s hope is that in appointing Attal, he can use his popularity to revive the struggling government.

This is unlikely to work. For a start, Attal faces the same problem his predecessor did: His government commands no parliamentary majority, meaning in order to pass laws, he will have to either rely on the support of Les Republicains, a party whose positions are but a cigarette paper away from the far-right RN’s, or he will have to return to abuse of article 49.3, thereby becoming the face of France’s democratic crisis.

Equally, his popularity is largely vibes-based. Teachers who had to deal with him as minister are not particularly enthused. SNES, a union representing teachers, regularly criticised Attal as education minister. I canvassed opinion in Champagne-Ardennes, where I used to teach at a school. A former colleague told me that his tenure was characterised by “communicative victories, but which were empty, and it was an emptiness that swept our real problems under the rug”.

Another reason why Attal’s appointment changes little, is that so far he has proved to be an ideological void that will drift in the wind. The direction of that wind is determined partly by Gerald Darmanin, the hard-right interior minister who has survived the reshuffle and whose name is synonymous with the new immigration law.

His new cabinet signals the end of Macronism’s “at the same time” strategy of making vague gestures to the left while shifting decisively to the right. Now even the gestures are gone. Macronism’s “left-wing” has been banished and the cabinet includes figures like Rachida Dati, Sarkozy’s former justice minister. This further right-wing drift should be understood as sanctioned by Macron. Emmanuel Moulin, who is close to Macron’s key allies, has been appointed as Attal’s cabinet director – and is likely to act as a babysitter for “young Gabriel”.

By boosting Attal in this manner, Macron is giving him a shot at the presidency in 2027. There has been a notable sense of panic since the passing of the immigration law. “What if we’re the ones to deliver the far-right to power?” some of the Macronists appear to be asking themselves.

For Macron’s presidency to be seen as anything other than a failure, he has to prevent Marine Le Pen from entering the Elysée in 2027. Lining up Attal as one of his potential successors hints at a possible strategy. Macron won in 2017 by weakening the parties to his immediate left and right and establishing a coalition of the middle to upper class of centre-left and right. If he runs, Attal may try and pull off this trick again.

If it proves impossible to run as an outsider like Macron, another strategy seems available. With Les Republicains having drifted to the far-right (in 2021 their current leader called combatting the Great Replacement a priority of national importance) the Macronists could try and reconstitute Gaullism – the dominant rightwing tradition of the French 5th Republic – through Macronism, casting off their left entirely, as they have done with the current cabinet, and branding themselves as the party of the sensible right.

One thing is clear, the appointment of Attal, despite his youth, charisma and status as France’s first gay PM, will do nothing to stop the Macron government’s drift to the right.

Olly Haynes is a freelance journalist covering politics, culture and social movements.

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