Macron goes all in with high-stakes reshuffle to combat far right


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PARIS  — French President Emmanuel Macron has propelled rising star Gabriel Attal center stage in a high-risk gamble aimed at stopping the far right’s surge ahead of the European election.  

In a surprise move on Tuesday, Macron appointed his former education minister and one of France’s most popular politicians as the country’s youngest-ever prime minister in a bid to re-energize his flagging presidency — at the risk of hastening the end of his own reign.

Macron has been under pressure to jump-start his presidency as the far-right National Rally outstrips the centrists in polls ahead of the EU election in June, and in the wake of two brutal fights last year over immigration and pensions. 

In contrast to the no-holds-barred election campaign led by 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, the National Rally’s lead candidate, Macron’s presidency has struggled to project any energy and vitality after seven years running France, and talk of a lame-duck presidency has become widespread in political circles.

Despite his short political career, the 34-year-old Attal has earned himself a reputation as an obstinate attack dog or a “word sniper” against the far right, having already crossed swords with Bardella in past election debates, and a deft operator fluent as government spokesperson during the Covid pandemic and as education minister. 

“It’s a great media coup,” said a conservative Les Républicains heavyweight, who was granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive topic. Macron “is doing it because [Attal] will lead the European election campaign … he was the only one who could hold his own against Bardella,” he said. 

Several political insiders told POLITICO the battle of the European election was one of the main reasons Macron chose Attal.

“Gabriel Attal and Jordan Bardella are of the same generation, it’s obvious. Attal has political acumen, knows how to deliver a punchline, with substance, so it’s someone who can face off with the National Rally,” said an aide to Macron. But it’ll be thanks to “his action” that he’ll be able to beat the National Rally, he added.

The nomination of a pugnacious politician with his own ambitions also carries a sizeable risk for the president, who has in the past favored more self-effacing, technocratic figures as his lieutenants. An Attal premiership may accelerate conversations on what comes after Macron as the French president cannot run for a third term. 

The meteoric rise of Attal, not unlike Macron himself, is also ruffling feathers among Macron’s heavyweight allies who look askance at the young uber-achiever taking over the reins of government. Macron was “forced to work hard” to get the nomination accepted when it was supposed to be “a slam dunk,” said an ally of the president on Monday. 

Macron’s Mini-Me on the campaign

The upcoming European election will be the last time Macron faces off with his nemesis Marine Le Pen before the end of his mandate in four years. A far-right victory would resonate for years and poison the president’s legacy. 

The clash comes at the worst possible time for the president, however. Not only does the National Rally lead his centrist alliance by almost 10 points in polls, but Macron’s presidency has hit rock bottom. 

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT ELECTION POLL OF POLLS

For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

The president’s troops have emerged battered after his much-hardened immigration bill was passed with the support of the far-right, an episode that almost splintered his centrist alliance. The immigration battle came on the heels of acrimonious debates last spring over the reform of French pensions which sparked weeks of nationwide protests.

Macron is languishing in poll ratings according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls with only 30 percent approval ratings.

His outgoing Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne was criticized as a technocrat who lacked charisma and political agility, worn out by successive struggles to pass legislation following Macron’s defeat in parliamentary elections last year. She also lost a lot of political capital when she failed to anticipate or prevent a shock defeat in parliament, when the National Assembly rejected the immigration bill without a vote in December.

Attal, on the other hand, is a fresh hand at the helm. 

“It’s great news, we’re going to have a government head who is a political operator, and capable of embodying Macron’s pro-European vision,” said Alexandre Holroyd, an MP from Macron’s Renaissance Party.

“To stop the far-right, which is rising not just in France but across Europe, we have to show that political action is efficient,” and talking to the general public is one thing Attal is good at, he added. 

Strategically, Attal’s nomination may also help secure the support of center-left voters, as leftwing MEP Raphaël Glucksmann emerges as a competing candidate ahead of the European election. Attal, a former Socialist Party member and the first openly gay prime minister, espouses progressive ideas and has made cyber-bullying and homophobia prominent causes. 

What’s really changed?

Macron himself has tasked Attal with the “regeneration” of his government, with “audacity” and “in the spirit of 2017,” his first election year, he wrote on X.

But while Attal is a fresh face, Macron’s margin of maneuver on the domestic front is shrinking, and it’s unlikely the new premiership will be plain sailing. The centrists still lack a majority in parliament, so passing legislation will remain a painful, humiliating process as the government seeks ad hoc alliances with opposition MPs. 

Macron is also struggling to find inspiration for his second mandate, and has piled up vague initiatives, such as the “100 days” last year, the “Saint Denis meetings” with opposition leaders, and this month “the meeting with the nation.”

But the nomination does partially resolve an issue that has dogged Macron’s camp for weeks: who will run as Macron’s lead candidate in the European election? The far right has been hitting the campaign trail for weeks and Macron, a notorious procrastinator, has still not chosen a lead candidate for France’s Renew campaign.

With many heavyweights in government reluctant to lead a difficult campaign, the names floated in Paris — Europe Minister Laurence Boone or Renew Group leader Stéphane Séjourné — appeared to lack sufficient clout to stand up to the far-right.

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Gabriel Attal carries more than just the European campaign on his shoulders | Pool photo by Ludovic Marin via AFP/Getty Images

With this week’s reshuffle, Renew’s lead candidate in France could play more of a supporting role. 

But Attal carries more than just the European campaign on his shoulders. As one of the stars of “Génération Macron,” young politicians who straddle the left-right divide and came to power with the French president, Attal will save or hasten the end of Macronism and its centrist, pro-European political offer.

It’s the “last bullet before the end of his mandate,” said the same conservative heavyweight cited above.

Pauline de Saint Remy contributed reporting 





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