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10 January 2024

A country for young men

Gabriel Attal is France’s latest and youngest prime minister.

By Wolfgang Münchau

Gabriel Attal is the new prime minister of France. At 34, he’s the youngest one in the history of the Fifth Republic (which began in 1958), nominated by its youngest president. Emmanuel Macron expects him to be audacious. It is a risky bet for Macron, himself a symbol of audacity. It will define whether the president’s method will live on or die once his second term finishes.

With Attal’s nomination, Macron reconnects with the spirit that brought him to power in 2017. He chose a candidate no one expected, disrupting the order and acting against the advice of the old guard. There were more plausible candidates, but Macron has given Attal the chance to prove critics of his inexperience wrong.

Attal has many obstacles to governing well. He has no majority in the National Assembly, and so will have to find votes from other parties to get his laws passed. He will need to quickly earn the respect of his more experienced ministers, and former contenders for the job, such as Bruno Le Maire or Gérald Darmanin. With them, Attal will have to shape a policy agenda that both defines what Macron stands for and has a chance of getting through the Assembly. What helps is that the most controversial reforms – the pension system and immigration – have been dealt with by his predecessor, Élisabeth Borne.

The prime minister brings to the role his talents as a communicator. He is also, like Macron, not confined by dogma. He was with the Socialists before joining Macron at the beginning of his presidential campaign in 2016. While at the education ministry, Attal made some audacious moves that have played well for him politically. The prohibition of abayas in schools last year worked better than expected and was welcomed on the right. His broad education reform got backing from a majority of the French public. Attal emerged as the most popular politician, surpassing even Édouard Philippe, the undeclared challenger of Macron and long-time darling in the polls.

Ahead of the European elections, Attal is expected to use his charisma and oratory skills against the main contender: the National Rally’s Marine Le Pen. Her party is still leading the polls, which is now led by the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, who will also head its list for the European Parliament elections later this year. Attal is seen by the National Rally as Macron’s choice to rival Bardella. Both are strong debaters and met on several occasions during the last presidential election campaign. The National Rally estimates that Attal will cost them a couple of percentage points. Much depends on how the themes of the European election campaign will resonate in national policymaking. Taking back control, a famous phrase during the Brexit campaign, is already surfacing in Attal’s discourse. This will link to immigration and security policy, two big themes on the campaign trail. We have yet to see what Attal will make of them.

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Even if Attal succeeds as prime minister, that does not mean he will be the natural successor to Macron as president. At the next election in 2027, he will be as old as Macron was when he won in 2017. If disruption is really the DNA of Macron’s Renaissance party, then his premiership should not guarantee him a nomination for presidential candidate. What it does do, however, is put the older potential candidates, such as Philippe and Le Maire, on alert, reminding them that their path to leadership is far from automatic.

The young and ambitious have reached the top of the two largest parties in the Assembly. It is a call for renewal; this generation has a very different perspective from more experienced politicians. In that sense, France is once again unique in Europe.

A version of this piece originally ran on the website Eurointelligence.

[See also: A European fiscal union is a vanishing dream]

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