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For only the second time, France has a female prime minister

Élisabeth Borne is a safe choice for Emmanuel Macron, but the symbolism of her appointment matters.

By Ido Vock

BERLIN – Emmanuel Macron, the French president, has nominated Élisabeth Borne as prime minister, replacing Jean Castex. Borne will become only the second woman to hold the position.

The fact that a woman has been named prime minister would be a relatively anodyne event in many other European countries. In France it is not. The country has never had a female president: a woman has made it to the second round of the presidential elections three times, but never won.

Édith Cresson, the previous female prime minister, lasted less than a year more than three decades ago. It was not an encouraging precedent: Cresson plumbed historic depths of unpopularity.

The increasingly glaring discrepancy between the leaders of France and some of its neighbours, such as Germany and the UK, has now to an extent been corrected. Borne dedicated her nomination to “all the little girls”, urging them to “follow their dreams”.

[See also: Are we about to see a “new era” for Macron?]

Macron has belatedly fulfilled a quasi-promise made during his first election campaign in 2017, when said he “hoped” to appoint a woman to be prime minister. He failed to realise that aspiration for five years, selecting two men — Édouard Philippe and Castex — instead.

Borne’s appointment makes sense politically for Macron too. She served first as a minister for transport, then the environment and finally labour in his first term. Before joining the president’s party she was associated with the previously dominant Socialists, in contrast with Philippe and Castex, who both began their political careers on the centre-right. Borne alluded to this in her nomination speech. “Though we come from different political families, I believe that we are equally committed to the general interest and the cohesion of our country,” she told Castex.

Borne fits the profile Macron has been searching for in his next head of government. She is originally of the left but does not alarm centre-right voters or ministers because her ministerial career began under Macron rather than his Socialist predecessor, François Hollande. Borne “is unquestionably qualified to become the second female prime minister of our country”, Valérie Pécresse, the centre-right candidate for this year’s presidential election, tweeted. Nor does Borne have any black marks against her, as with the right-wing former minister Catherine Vautrin, widely rumoured to have been one of the frontrunners for the post, who campaigned against the introduction of gay marriage in 2012-2013.

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[See also: Macron’s win can’t hide a fractured France]

Borne takes office at a time when her government is facing difficult political circumstances. Like other European countries, France is suffering a cost-of-living crisis driven by rising food prices and high inflation, although energy costs have been capped, limiting the pain for consumers. The war in Ukraine, too, grinds on, with divisions emerging within the EU over how far to sanction Russian energy.

The selection of Borne will be taken as an attempt to appeal to centre-left voters before next month’s legislative elections, in which the president faces a challenge from an alliance of left-wing parties that aims to make Jean-Luc Mélenchon prime minister. One of Borne’s key tasks will be to shore up the left flank of Macron’s electoral coalition without alienating the right, and after the legislative elections to ensure that left-leaning MPs of the president’s party toe the party line.

Borne’s ministerial career also broadly corresponds with the themes Macron has said he will prioritise over his second term. As prime minister she will be tasked with a new responsibility for “ecological planning”, for which she is viewed as well-prepared because of her previous job as environment minister. “We must act faster and more strongly on the climatic and environmental issue,” she said in her speech. One of the few concrete manifesto promises Macron made during his campaign for re-election this year was to raise the retirement age to 65 from 62, a topic which Borne worked on as labour minister.

Like Philippe and Castex before her, Borne is a relative unknown to the public. Politically, she is a relatively safe choice for the president. Still, her appointment as only France’s second female prime minister retains its symbolic significance.

[See also: Will Macron finally turn green rhetoric into substance?]

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