Macron said he wanted a female Prime Minister, so why did he pick a man?

Macron says he's a feminist. He must do better for women in his cabinet

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

He repeated it several times on the campaign trail: Emmanuel Macron, France’s newly elected and youngest ever President, is a self-declared feminist. During the months leading to his election on 7 May, Macron was vocal about gender balance within his campaign team and his party’s parliamentary candidates. Crucially, he declared in March that he “wished” his Prime Minister would be a woman.  

But in the week leading to his inauguration last Sunday, of half a dozen names rumoured to be in the running for “Matignon” (the Prime Minister’s residence), only two were women. Then the Elysée palace announced yesterday that Macron had chosen Edouard Philippe, the Republican mayor of the northern city of Le Havre.

“I will choose the most capable, the most competent,” Macron had said at the time he wished it would be “a woman.” Was there no woman Macron thought would be “capable” enough to earn the title of Prime Minister? French presidents have total freedom to name their PM – even, as Macron has done, so called “cohabitations” in which the President and the PM are from different parties.

And it's not just Philippe's gender that suggests an early watering down of Macron's committment to equality, it's the new Prime Minister's voting record. He abstained on the law legalising gay marriage and voted against allowing adoption for gay couples.

Macron successfully campaigned on a “neither left nor right” platform, but he very much needs the votes of the actually right-wing who make up half of the French electorate to win June’s parliamentary elections and rule effectively. Hence the moderate Republican Prime Minister: Edouard Philippe is follower of Alain Juppé, the most liberal candidate who ran (and lost) in the Republican primary. (Juppé himself wasn’t exactly PM material: Macron’s first reform is set to be the “moralisation of politics”, and Juppé was sentenced to two years away from public office for misuse of public money in the early 2000s).

Yet even with the necessity of naming a Republican Prime Minister, the party is not short of experienced women qualified for the job. Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a Republican and former minister under Nicolas Sarkozy who ran for mayor of Paris in 2014, was one of the names that circulated last week. She has expressed support for Macron and called on the centre-right to “accept the hand he is offering” to rule France. The centrist MEP Sylvie Goulard, who backed Macron at the beginning of his presidential bid and organised his meeting with Angela Merkel last March, was another.

France has had only one female Prime Minister: Edith Cresson led Francois Mitterrand’s government for just one year, from May 1991 to April 1992. Michèle Alliot-Marie, the first woman to be named Interior Minister in 2007, also became the first female Foreign Affairs Minister in 2010, both during Sarkozy’s mandate. She remains the only woman to have held either position.

Until September at least, Macron will sit alongside Germany’s Angela Merkel, his closest international ally, and will face Theresa May’s in Brexit negotiations. He’s already compromised the ideal he set himself – a female PM. The least he can do, both for his own record and for France’s, would be to ask Edouard Philippe to pick a woman as Foreign Affairs Minister.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency. 

Free trial CSS