The Challenges of Gabriel Attal

Gerard Grunberg

6 mins - 12 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

The appointment of Gabriel Attal as Prime Minister on 9 January, six months after his appointment as Minister of National Education, came as a surprise, but seems a logical decision in the current political situation. Emmanuel Macron’s second five-year term in office, less than two years after his re-election, seems already exhausted after difficult parliamentary battles over pension reform and the immigration bill. The objective alliance of all opposition parties against Elisabeth Borne’s government has dangerously reduced the room for manoeuvre of the Macronist relative majority in the Assembly. As the President has no plans to provoke new legislative elections, the choice of Gabriel Attal may seem the most sensible.  

Seven years apart, Attal is replicating Macron’s meteoric rise. A Macronist from the start, he was an MP in 2017, Secretary of State to the Minister of National Education in 2018, Government Spokesperson from 2020 to 2022, became Minister Delegate for Public Accounts in May 2022, and was appointed Minister of National Education and Youth last July.

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At a time when the President and the government are highly unpopular, the new Minister stands out among the political class for his firmness and talent for communication. Following the ban on the wearing of the abaya in schools, desired by public opinion, and other announcements concerning national education, at a time when schools are going through a serious crisis, his popularity rating has risen fifteen points in six months, making him the most popular politician with 40% of favourable opinions on the eve of his appointment as prime minister. Only Edouard Philippe, Macron’s former prime minister, Marine Le Pen, and Jordan Bardella, the leaders of the Rassemblement national, escape this unpopularity. He is young, 34 years old, a very benificial quality at a time when there is an emerging demand in public opinion for renewal. He would be the youngest Prime Minister of the Fifth Republic. His political skills and ambition point to him as a future leader. This appointment is likely to be well received by public opinion. From a communication point of view, this appointment gives a breath of fresh air to the majority.

Is this appointment likely to revive the five-year term and give the government more room for manoeuvre with more than three years to go before the next elections? Much will depend on the new Prime Minister himself, but it is clear that the challenges ahead are many and daunting.

The first of these challenges is to heal the wounds of a majority that has struggled through the last period. The immigration law, also approved by the right and the extreme right, has unsettled the left wing of Macronism, which came from the Socialist Party and had broken with a radicalising left. Strengthening the left wing of the majority will therefore not be easy. The Socialist list for next June’s European elections, which will be headed by Raphaël Glucskmann, a centre-left politician who is not a member of the Socialist Party, could win back part of the Socialist electorate that rallied to Macron in 2017. Of course, Gabriel Attal, one of the first Macronists, also comes from the Socialist Party, but his political profile has changed, and his relative majority will automatically lead him to seek compromises with the right.

The second, more difficult challenge is to expand the majority in the National Assembly or, at the very least, to reach compromises with some of the opposition groups. However, there is little chance that the right, which has moved ideologically closer to the extreme right, will accept compromises with the majority, as we saw with the immigration law. As for the socialists and ecologists, despite the failure of Nupes, they remain committed to the strategy of uniting the left. In these conditions, will Attal be able to avoid governing with Article 49.3, as the previous Prime Minister had to do? A bad result in the European elections would further complicate the government’s task. Macron and his relative majority will probably remain isolated in the Assembly. Only a dissolution could reshuffle the cards, but the president, rightly fearing defeat, does not seem to be contemplating it.

The third challenge is the political burden that will fall on the shoulders of Gabriel Attal, who is also Prime Minister and has declared that he will “take the cause of schools with him to Matignon”. He will also have to manage the campaign for the European elections, although Macron seems determined to get involved himself. That is a lot for one man to handle, however talented he may be.

The fourth challenge is to assert his authority vis-à-vis the government’s heavyweights, in particular Bruno Lemaire and Gérald Darmanin, who have been moderately happy to place themselves under the authority of this young man, and above all vis-à-vis a President to whom he owes everything and who is reluctant to delegate his authority. Laurent Fabius, also a young man, was appointed Prime Minister by François Mitterrand in 1984. A few weeks after his appointment, he said of the President: “He is him, and I am me”, a statement that did not go down well with the President. Adopting such an attitude will no doubt be necessary, as some are already accusing him of being nothing more than a clone of the President. Will the President give him free rein?

The new Prime Minister embarks on this adventure with a high level of popularity. But this capital reflects above all the high expectations of public opinion. This capital could erode rapidly in the event of disappointment. The public is concerned and expects politicians to address the problems that are most important to them, such as education, integration, security, and health. Attal seems to be aware of this, having recently declared: “a proactive approach is preferable to resignation or resignation”. The new prime minister thus seems determined to give a new impetus to Macronism. He holds the cards but, for the President, this appointment is a shot in the dark.
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