When the French president Emmanuel Macron appointed Gabriel Attal as his new prime minister last month, the newspaper Libération joked that Macron had appointed himself, running with “Macron prime minister” as their headline.
It is not hard to see why: Attal is an ultra-loyal Macron protégé, who in many ways appears to be Macron’s political Mini-Me. Like Macron, Attal is an upper-class high-flyer who first entered politics through the centre-left Socialist Party, and subsequently enjoyed a meteoric rise: elected to the National Assembly as a member of Macron’s new party in 2017, before becoming a government minister the following year at the age of 29. Dispensing with his erstwhile centre-left beliefs, Attal quickly distinguished himself through his willingness to publicly bat for Macron no matter the situation or context. Now, at the age of 34, Attal has been appointed as the Fifth Republic’s youngest prime minister by the Fifth Republic’s youngest president.
However, focusing on the CV similarities between Attal and Macron risks ignoring the political significance of his appointment. By appointing such a close ally as prime minister, Macron is intending to impose a new approach on his government. Attal’s premiership marks a decisive shift to the right, and an abandonment of Macronism’s early progressivism.
When Macron first ran for president, in 2017, he did so on a platform of social and economic liberalism that was presented as neither left nor right – yet it received the support of a largely centre-left electorate. Once elected, Macron combined centre-right economic policies with Europeanism and environmental concerns. Although his first two prime ministers both hailed from the conservative Republican party, he was careful to balance his cabinets with a wide range of figures from both the centre left and the centre right in what the French press described as a policy of “simultaneity”, designed to allow him to appeal to voters on both sides of the political spectrum.
In practice however, Macron pandered to the conservative right on questions of identity and security, adopting a strict interpretation of secularism and talking tough about the threat of Islamism. In 2020 he appointed the right-winger Gérald Darmanin as his interior minister, and in 2021 he passed an authoritarian security law, despite protests from both Muslim and civil liberties groups. In 2022, it was with the support of a more conservative electorate that Macron was re-elected, more narrowly than in 2017, against the hard-right Marine Le Pen.
Since then, Macron has shifted further rightwards. Despite appointing Élisabeth Borne – who had close Socialist Party links – as his new prime minister, the first year of Macron’s second term was dominated by the uncompromising pursuit of a substantial increase in the pension age, sparking a long series of strikes and demonstration, and resulting in Borne’s controversial use of article 49.3 in the French constitution to circumvent parliamentary opposition.
At the same time, Macron has combined his long-standing economic liberalism with an increasing number of culturally conservative stances, often clashing with those of his ministers who retained a more centre-left political sensibility.
In May 2023, after Borne described Le Pen’s National Rally as the “heirs of Pétain”, in reference to the Nazi collaborator leader of Vichy France during the Second World War, Macron publicly slapped her down, saying it was unfair to brand millions of voters as fascists; in July, following incessant (and often racialised) attacks by right-wing media against his education minister, Pap Ndiaye, Macron replaced him with Attal, who swiftly courted media favour by announcing a harsher ban on Muslim clothing in schools. In December, after the culture minister Rima Abdul Malak suggested stripping Gérard Depardieu of his honours following multiple allegations of sexual assault, Macron rebuked her, praised Depardieu as a figure who “makes France proud”, and denounced what he called a “manhunt” against the actor.
Perhaps the most striking moment in this conservative shift came at the end of last year, when, after a government immigration bill struggled to obtain parliamentary support, the government offered a series of amendments so drastic they won the approval not only of the mainstream conservative Republicans, but also the National Rally. The final bill imposed a cap on total migration, restricted migrants’ access to state benefits, made it harder to obtain French citizenship, and empowered the government to strip dual citizens of nationality. Le Pen described it as an “ideological victory”, inspired by her party’s ideas. Although it was passed by the National Assembly, it left the government itself divided, with several ministers expressing discomfort.
It was in the aftermath of this immigration furore that Macron replaced Borne with Attal. Most of the ministers unhappy with the immigration bill have been sacked, and the policy of “simultaneity” has been abandoned – a clear majority of the senior cabinet hails from the political right. Whereas Borne at times appeared hesitant towards the president’s conservative turn, Attal is unlikely to have such compunctions. The change is already apparent in both Macron and Attal’s rhetoric: Attal’s first brief speech as prime minister emphasised action, law and order, and a promise to reward the strivers whose hard work funds public services. The following week, Macron announced a programme of “civic rearmament” to ensure that “France remains France”.
This kind of rhetoric is strikingly similar to that of the former Republican president Nicolas Sarkozy, to whom Macron has recently grown close. It is no coincidence that two of Attal’s most significant ministerial appointees – the labour minister Catherine Vautrin and culture minister Rachida Dati – are figures who remain both publicly and privately associated with the ex-president. In the context of an increasingly right-wing media sphere (in large part due to the growing empire of the ultra-conservative billionaire Vincent Bolloré) and with rising support for Le Pen’s National Rally, Macron and Attal seem to have embraced what was previously Sarkozy’s signature strategy, of fending off the hard right by embracing many of its themes. Whereas in his first term Macron combined his economic liberalism with a defence of “progressivism” against “populism”, he now presents himself as a defender of French culture, and as a guarantor of “republican order”.
Whether such a strategy will succeed in staving off a Le Pen presidency remains to be seen. (It is worth noting that Sarkozy himself left office in 2012 after only one term, his failed re-election bid coinciding with an unprecedented score for the hard right.) What is clear, however, is that a presidency that began with a promise to move beyond left and right, is now straightforwardly a presidency of the right. Perhaps the ultimate lesson of Macron’s presidency will be proving the accuracy of the French philosopher Alain’s old saying: “When people ask me if the division between parties of the right and parties of the left, men of the right and men of the left, still makes sense, the first thing that comes to mind is that the person asking the question is certainly not a man of the left.”
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