France’s ‘baby Macron’ faces stiff test as prime minister

At 34, Gabriel Attal is France’s most popular politician but faces a resurgent far right

When Emmanuel Macron, then economy minister, broke away from France’s Socialist Party in 2016 to run for the presidency, his disruptive message about modernising France attracted many young people.

Among them was Gabriel Attal, then 27, a speechwriter, who threw in his lot with Macron, signing on to the campaign and later being elected as a lawmaker for his nascent party in the Hauts-de-Seine constituency near where he grew up.

“Gabriel saw straight away the modernity that Macron’s election could bring,” said Hervé Marseille, a senator from the same constituency for the UDI centrist party. “Attal is an extension of that movement – a baby Macron.”

Seven years later, Macron – who was elected as France’s youngest president – has chosen Attal to be France’s youngest prime minister at age 34 to reboot the older man’s faltering second term. The protege has enjoyed a meteoric rise in various cabinet posts, including most recently as education minister and before that as government spokesman during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Attal has now eclipsed even his political mentor in popularity to rank as the most well-liked politician in France, according to Ipsos, with an approval rating of 40 per cent compared with 27 per cent for Macron.

The move was a risky and surprising choice by Macron, whose previous three prime ministers were not well known or well liked when they were appointed. The shift is one Macron may regret if Attal overshadows him in the waning years of the president’s second term.

“Gabriel Attal has good political instincts, a real gift for communication, and is a hard worker who prepares his dossiers in deep detail,” said Gilles Le Gendre, a lawmaker who has known him since they were both elected as MPs when Macron swept to power in 2017.

“These qualities are tempered by the fact that he does not have strong convictions or ideological beliefs – instead his rise shows how our politics has become personality-driven and all about communication.”

Analysts were already predicting that Attal’s promotion had made him a contender to succeed Macron in 2027. But for that he will have to survive the so-called Matignon curse that has meant that no sitting prime minister has been elected president straight afterwards. He will also have to prove he can fend off a resurgent far right led by Marine Le Pen.

Attal was born into a wealthy family in the leafy Parisian suburb of Clamart; his parents were both film producers. His mother, from a Christian Orthodox family with Russian origins, worked on corporate films, while Attal’s late father, of Tunisian Jewish descent, contributed to productions including those of Pedro Almodóvar.

Aged only nine, Attal showed a talent for oratory and a preternatural self-confidence. In a France 3 documentary from 1998 about the elite private school he attended, the École alsacienne in Paris, he is shown professing his desire to be an actor in starring roles. “The year before last, I did Puss In Boots. I was the cat,” a baby-faced Attal said.

Later educated at Sciences Po university, Attal went into politics early, joining the Socialist Party at age 17 and working as a speechwriter for the health minister in the government of François Hollande.

That he is a “mini-me” clone of the French president has been a recurrent criticism of Attal by opponents. Not only do both Macron and Attal have a penchant for the same slim-cut, dark blue suits, but critics say both are pragmatists with little core ideology.

Like Macron, Attal is a strong debater and orator. During the battle over an unpopular pensions reform last year, he stood out as a pugnacious counter-puncher on the floor of the National Assembly when answering questions from the rowdy opposition.

But imposing his authority over more experienced cabinet heavyweights may prove a challenge. Like the previous prime minister Élisabeth Borne, Attal will also have to haggle with opposition lawmakers, given that Macron’s centrist alliance no longer has a majority in parliament.

European elections in June, ahead of which Macron’s party is trailing Le Pen’s in the polls by about 10 points, will be another tough test.

Attal’s breakthrough in public opinion in recent months stems from a strategy of quick-fire announcements on education policy, including a planned experiment to bring back uniforms – which disappeared in France with the student uprisings of 1968 – and a push to make underperforming pupils stay back a year.

He is best known for a decision soon after taking on the education role that vaulted him into an intense public debate about the role of religion in schools. Attal made a splash in a primetime television news interview by announcing that schoolgirls would be banned from wearing abayas, a loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim students to class, a move in tune with public opinion in fiercely secular France.

The garment had previously been tolerated in schools despite French rules of “laïcité”, the country’s strict separation of religion and state, under which Muslim headscarves and Christian crosses are banned in schools. “When you enter a classroom, you should not be able to distinguish or identify the religion of the students by looking at them,” Attal said, calling the changes “necessary and just”.

The decision, made with Macron’s backing, marked Attal as a bold and decisive politician who could appeal across the political spectrum, and lent him credibility as a contender for prime ministership.

The abaya ban was also an example of what people who know him say is a canny ability to select issues and soundbites that will resonate, while also distracting from more intractable problems such as deteriorating maths scores and teacher shortages.

Attal’s appeal also grew when he broke with the usual approach taken by politicians in France, who speak little about their personal lives.

When a 15-year-old student took his own life after being bullied, Attal gave a confessional-style TV interview in November in which he shared his experience of receiving online abuse as a teenager. He recounted being mocked by schoolmates over what they intuited was his sexual orientation, and how, at 26, he told his father he was gay just hours before he died from cancer.

“I told him, ‘Dad, I’ve fallen in love with a boy.’ He smiled and said ‘Finally you’re talking about it’,” Attal told the TF1 programme, flashing a crooked smile.

Attal’s personal touch also extended to his handling of the education portfolio. Elisabeth Allain-Moreno of the Unsa union lauded how often Attal had met with teacher representatives.

But she expressed anger about how quickly he had been moved on. “It’s destabilising once again for schools,” she said.

In his first speech as prime minister, Attal promised to make education a priority, calling it “the mother of all our battles”.

“Liberté, égalité, fraternité. This motto of our schools is that of our republic, and it will always be my compass,” he said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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