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Macron’s Latest Cabinet Reshuffle and Implications

Dr Swasti Rao is Associate Fellow at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • January 16, 2024

    French President Emmanuel Macron appointed Gabriel Attal as the youngest ever Prime Minister on 9 January 2024. Attal replaced Elisabeth Borne, whose popularity had been dwindling despite her managing the tricky 20-month tenure as PM without an absolute majority in the lower house of the French parliament. 

    Borne’s Complicated Tenure

    Macron won the presidential general elections in 2022, but failed to secure a majority in the lower house in the second term.1 The mandate forced Macron to change his style of politics and engage more with the opposition on domestic governance legislations. It was then that he had assigned the freshly appointed PM, Borne, with a task to rally more support for his ambitious policies in the lower house.2

    Under the French political system, the president is elected by the people and appoints the prime minister. The president as head of the state has authority over foreign and defence policies, whereas the prime minister is the head of the government and has more responsibility towards domestic issues. In the domestic sphere, Macron aimed to bring in two ambitious reforms relating to pension and immigration which became complicated as his party did not have the required majority in the lower house. Therefore, Borne’s tenure as PM was never meant to be easy.

    Her 20-month tenure was marred by violent and widespread protests around the two reform measures. While in the case of the pension reform, the backlash came from French public, in the case of latter, it came from the members of Macron’s cabinet itself. But in both cases, being responsible for domestic affairs, it was she as PM who bore the brunt.

    Backlash against Pension Reform

    Borne was assigned the task of gathering support in the lower house of the parliament so that the controversial pension reform pushed by Macron could be passed.3 The ambitious set of reforms aimed to unify over 42 types of pension schemes in France with controversial changes, most notable was the rise in the minimum general retirement age from 62 to 64. Macron was resolute to get them passed, having tried several times earlier in his first tenure but had to give up due to the impasse triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The reforms were a crucial part of his election manifesto and took centre-stage once again in his second tenure. Borne, however, failed to get the required support in the lower house. As a final resort, the emergency provision stipulated in the constitution under Article 49.3 had to be invoked to get the reform passed.4

    Backlash against Immigration Law

    In a second and a bigger jolt, Borne was once again unable to rally support behind Macron’s controversial immigration law that appeared too right wing for centrist political preferences. In fact, in a strange turn of events, the left leaning members of his cabinet revolted against the bill when it was passed in the parliament with votes from the far right on 19 December 2023. While technically the National Assembly, the French lower house, approved the bill with 349 votes in favour and 186 opposing or abstaining, several MPs from Macron’s coalition abstained or voted against it.5 Perhaps the most emphatic rejection came from Health Minister Aurélien Rousseau who resigned from his post citing sections in the bill that didn’t appear to be constitutional.6

    Centrists within the National Assembly accused Macron of giving in to the pressure of the far right.7 Several centrist MPs from Macron’s coalition were upset about changes to the immigration law that were made at the last minute to get support from the far right. A jubilant far right and its increasingly popular leader Marine Le Pen celebrated an ideological victory 8 as the centrist government went on making concessions on the bill to ensure support from the far right as support of its own MPs dwindled.

    Further, Borne made a submission that certain parts of the bill that are related to deciding social security benefits for immigrants and their rights under the controversial notion of ‘national preference’ for natives, could be unconstitutional. This triggered further divisions within Macron’s coalition. She herself has called for the immigration law to evolve from its current form which is seen as too harsh on the immigrants.9 Trying to respond to this political crisis, Macron decided to take upon the task of rejuvenating his domestic political posture.

    The first step to that end has been to get a new prime minister with the hope that he can rally support in the lower house better than his predecessor. On the other hand, Macron is also well aware of the rising popularity of a hardened stance on immigration across European societies.10 As per recent opinion polls,11 Le Pen is more popular than Macron. By pushing the controversial immigration law, Macron hopes to prove to the people that his centrist government is also capable of addressing people’s concerns on issues like immigration and that people do not necessarily have to tilt to the far right for dealing with such concerns.

    Lessons from the 2022 National Elections

    The 2022 national elections had disappointing results for Macron’s political coalition, Ensemble, with only 245 of the 577 seats in the National Assembly. An absolute majority would have required 289 seats. It was additionally demoralising for Macron that political heavyweights like Health Minister Brigitte Bourguignon, Maritime Minister Justine Benin and Environment Minister Amelie de Montchalin lost their seats and had to exit the government.12 Defeated by NUEPS13 candidates, close Macron ally and head of the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand, and former interior minister Christophe Castaner, another political weight, lost their seats as well.

    It was interesting to note that the relatively younger faces of Macron government, namely Europe Minister Clement Beaune and Public Service Minister Stanislas Guerni, managed to win their seats in a close fight with their contenders. The relative electoral success of the young in Macron’s cabinet could also be a reason to appoint Attal as the PM.

    Impact on Macron’s Political Career

    Macron will remain president until 2027 after which, according to French constitution, he cannot run for a third time. Until then, he is aiming for a rejuvenation of his second term with the help of a new and supposedly popular face. Attal has the reputation of being a Macron loyalist.14 However, choosing an unusually young candidate for the second highest office in France has certainly raised apprehensions. Attal’s media-savvy approach and public speaking skills are noted. He was also education minister and the spokesperson for Macron during COVID-19 years. The most famous decision during his stint as Education Minister came when he banned the ‘Abaya’ (Muslim dress for women) from schools.15 Having him as PM would mean that a tough stance on the question of identity would continue under Macron. An interesting aspect to note is that Attal is openly gay.

    However, a bigger test for Attal lies in instilling hope in the French middle class by reducing cost of living and by improving the image of Macron’s coalition before European parliament elections in June.16 Attal’s leadership would also be crucial at a time when Paris would be hosting the Olympics in the summer. Continuing in their key positions are Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and the unusually stable Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, who are supposed to work in tandem with the PM.

    What Lies Ahead

    Since Macron cannot run a third time, the appointment of Attal as PM is unarguably an effort to shortlist his successor for the 2027 presidential elections. The biggest challenge to Macron’s political legacy would come from an increasingly popular Le Pen. He hopes to offset her popularity by bringing a young and dynamic loyalist in Attal with firm views on far right’s forte, i.e., immigration. However, what will perhaps help Attal most would be a revamped economic situation and a happier middle class—a challenge that is not easy to achieve in the all-pervasive economic perils in Europe today.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Manohar Parrrikar IDSA or of the Government of India.