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Home » Taking Aim at Left-Leaning Voters, Macron Names a Woman Prime Minister

Taking Aim at Left-Leaning Voters, Macron Names a Woman Prime Minister

by News Desk

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron appointed Élisabeth Borne, the low-key minister of labor and a former minister of the environment, as his new prime minister on Monday, in line with his promise to prioritize environmental issues in his second term and a long-expressed wish to select a woman for that role.

Weeks before legislative elections, the choice of a woman and particularly Ms. Borne, long regarded as close to the Socialist Party, was meant to appeal to left-leaning voters whose support will help determine control over Parliament.

Ms. Borne, 61, is only the second woman to occupy that position. In a speech on Monday in the courtyard of the prime minister’s official residence in Paris, she dedicated her nomination to young girls around France.

“Follow your dreams,” she said after meeting with Jean Castex, her immediate predecessor. “Nothing must slow down the fight for the place of women in our societies.”

Mr. Macron expressed his desire to appoint a woman as prime minister as far back as the presidential campaign of 2017. But his failure to do so until now — as well as the all-male cast in the first tier of power around him — was often cited as insufficient efforts by Mr. Macron to advance the place of women in politics.

Politically, the choice of Ms. Borne is a departure from Mr. Macron’s first two prime ministers, both from the traditional right, but in keeping with the president’s preference for political lightweights who will not outshine him. The first prime minister, Édouard Philippe, was let go after he became more popular than Mr. Macron.

Ms. Borne, a career civil servant before she endorsed Mr. Macron in 2017 and who first became minister of transportation, has never held elected office and is not seen as harboring political ambitions. Like Mr. Castex, Ms. Borne is not expected to become a strong prime minister, leaving Mr. Macron with full leverage over Parliament if his party wins next month.

Bruno Cautrès, a research fellow at the CEVIPOF, a political research institute at Sciences Po in Paris, said that Mr. Macron had chosen experience over novelty even though he has said that “he didn’t want his second term to be a continuation of the first.”

“The condition to do new things was to trust someone with a proven track record,” he said.

The French presidency announced Ms. Borne’s appointment shortly after Mr. Castex tendered his resignation — a move that was widely expected following Mr. Macron’s re-election last month.

Mr. Macron won a second term with 58.5 percent of the vote, convincingly defeating Marine Le Pen, the French far-right leader. He swiftly promised a reinvention of his leadership, vowing to pay closer attention to youth issues and environmental concerns over the next five years — and to move away from the “Jupiterian,” top-down exercise of power that had become his hallmark.

But the first few weeks of his second term have been muted so far, and Mr. Macron took an unusually long time to appoint a new prime minister, fueling weeks of speculation over the new government.

Ms. Borne was one of the front-runners. She will be running in June’s legislative elections in Normandy and is seen as a competent centrist who will not alienate too many voters on either side of France’s left-right divide.

She has been in Mr. Macron’s government since 2017, moving to the environment after transportation, and then on to labor issues — key assets for a prime minister who will have to juggle France’s green transition with contentious plans to raise the legal age of retirement.

Ms. Borne, who studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique and worked in several top companies and political institutions, is a typical product of France’s elitist meritocracy. As transportation minister, she helped overhaul the national railway company despite widespread strikes, and the unemployment rate has fallen to its lowest rate in over a decade under her watch.

The new cabinet’s full composition, expected to be announced in the coming days, will be closely scrutinized ahead of crucial legislative elections in June. Those will determine the makeup of France’s lower and more powerful house of Parliament, the National Assembly, and give Mr. Macron more or less leeway to get his bills passed.

Mr. Macron had been widely expected to try to inject fresh air into his new term by appointing a woman as prime minister, which has happened only once before in France.

Édith Cresson, the only other woman to hold the position, between 1991 and 1992, told the Journal du Dimanche newspaper last week that “it isn’t the country that is chauvinist, it’s its political class.”

Ms. Cresson said France was an unfortunate outlier in Europe, where politicians like Angela Merkel in Germany and Margaret Thatcher in Britain dominated their countries’ politics for decades. She recalled being targeted by incessant sexist attacks, including over her outfits, after she was appointed by François Mitterrand, the Socialist president at the time.

“These are the same attacks as today” against current women politicians, Ms. Cresson said.

Mr. Macron, who tried to woo disgruntled left-wing voters during the presidential race, has vowed that his next government would be committed to the social and environmental issues favored by that constituency.

But opponents on the left say they expect him to stick ultimately to the pro-business policies of his first term once the parliamentary race is over.

“Macron still has an election coming up, and so the wolf must act like a sheep,” François Ruffin, a lawmaker for the left-wing France Unbowed party, told RTL radio on Monday. “Once he has a majority in the National Assembly, the wolf will become a wolf again.”

Mr. Cautrès, the analyst, said that Ms. Borne’s appeal with left-wing voters could prove limited. She was not a Socialist heavyweight and under Mr. Macron she oversaw reforms that are unpopular on the left, like a shake-up of the unemployment system that made it harder to claim benefits.

“The first big test will be pension reform,” he said.

France’s prime ministers play an important role but the country’s constitutional framework gives presidents a much more powerful office, and they often view their prime ministers as close collaborators or subordinates, not autonomous policymakers.

Twice, Mr. Macron chose little-known politicians over established veterans who might have been harder to keep on a tight leash. In 2017, he chose Mr. Philippe, who is now one of France’s most popular politicians but was an unfamiliar, right-wing mayor at the time. In 2020, he picked Mr. Castex, an unknown technocrat who helped steer France through the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic.

French prime ministers theoretically have broad powers to “determine and conduct” France’s domestic politics, along with their cabinet, according to the French Constitution.

In practice, they are usually given the task of carrying out the president’s will, although they are still important members of the executive branch who lead France’s formidable bureaucracy and manage relations with Parliament.

Only in a situation where the president’s political opponents prevail in parliamentary elections can they force the appointment of a prime minister and cabinet to their liking — a situation that Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leftist candidate who had a strong showing in the presidential elections, is hoping to achieve in June through a broad left-wing victory.

But “cohabitations,” as these periods with opposing presidents and prime ministers are known, have only occurred three times in France’s modern history, and they became less likely in 2000, when the timing and duration of presidential terms was synchronized with legislative ones.

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