French President Emmanuel Macron has named Education Minister Gabriel Attal as the country’s next Prime Minister, catapulting the 34-year-old to become the youngest head of government in modern French history.
Attal replaces outgoing PM Élisabeth Borne, who resigned after struggling for 20 months to govern without a parliamentary majority. His meteoric rise to the pinnacle of power mirrors that of President Macron himself, who burst onto the political stage as an outsider promising to shake up the status quo.
With Attal’s appointment, Macron aims to reinvigorate his embattled presidency before critical European Parliament elections in June. But the selection of the inexperienced wunderkind risks backfiring as Attal tries to establish credibility over veteran heavyweights in the cabinet.
Adept Debater Tasked with Wooing Opposition Lawmakers
Attal earned Macron’s attention with brilliant performances in parliamentary debates after the president’s election in 2017. His intellect and communication skills impressed the young reformist leader.
After entering the National Assembly as a member of Macron’s centrist La République En Marche party, Attal emerged as one of its most cogent voices. He relished verbal sparring sessions with the opposition as few colleagues could.
When Attal was 29, Macron rewarded his promise by naming him to his first cabinet post as the youngest-ever French minister. He gradually took on more senior roles, replacing seasoned veterans.
As government spokesman starting in 2020, Attal became a fixture of French television. Last year, he moved to the Education Ministry where he burnished his credentials for the top job.
Attal tackled thorny issues like banning Muslim religious garb in schools head-on. He also pushed school uniform policies over the objections of many in the education establishment.
Through it all, Attal cultivated an image of youthful dynamism that clearly enticed President Macron. Opinion polls show Attal as by far the most popular minister, even rivaling Macron’s perennial foe Marine Le Pen.
With his stellar communication skills and popularity, Attal seems tailor-made for Macron’s plan to court opposition lawmakers. Without a ruling majority since last year’s elections, Macron needs to win over converts from across the aisle.
Attal’s prime challenge will be somehow convincing resistant opposition parties to help pass Macron’s agenda. His mixture of charm and determination will be constantly tested.
Governing Coalition Fragile as Nationalists Surge
While Attal’s appointment generated buzz, it remains unclear if reshuffling personalities atop the French government will remedy its underlying fragility.
President Macron lost his absolute majority last summer, forcing him into an unwieldy three-party coalition. The constantly shifting alliances required to pass laws have ground governance to a crawl.
Meanwhile, the far-right National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen continues gaining strength. Le Pen reached the presidential runoff against Macron last year and her nationalist bloc is poised to make big gains in the June parliamentary vote.
With the government coalition looking shaky and National Rally on the rise, Attal will be racing to patch things together before elections that could weaken Macron’s second term even further.
The drawn-out process in selecting Attal hints at Macron’s hesitation in diagnosing the malaise settling into his presidency. After much delay, Macron appears to be betting that Attal’s meteoric appeal can halt the momentum on the hard right.
But replicating his rapid success in a much more demanding role could prove difficult. Attal’s age and inexperience may limit his ability to drive consensus between clashing political forces.
Wunderkind Must Prove He’s More Than Macron 2.0
At a precarious moment, Macron has entrusted power to another young upstart vowing to overcome stale ideologies. But replicating the president’s initial flash-in-the-pan success a decade later will not be straightforward.
Beyond youthful energy, critics contend Attal has yet to demonstrate substantive vision or policy heft. He enthusiastically absorbed Macron’s centrist ethos demolishing the old party system. But crafting an inspiring second act for a wayward presidency still in search of purpose requires deeper skills.
A key question surrounds whether Attal can emerge from Macron’s shadow as more than just a watered-down copy of the original. Their backgrounds and worldviews almost eerily align.
Both came up through the Socialist Party before defecting to Macron’s insurrectionist centrist vehicle. Two brainy sons of professors who graduated from elite schools, their technique of rhetorical persuasion and infectious optimism draw natural parallels.
With echoes of a young Macron, Attal stimulates nostalgia for the maverick politician who upended French politics in 2017 on a message of national revival. But Macron’s future rests less on replicating the magic of his initial rise than on finally accomplishing tangible results for French voters.
After five years of unfulfilled ambitions, Macron either needs to deliver on his grand vision for France or come up with an inspirational new one. Relying solely on Attal’s precociousness to turn the page on an underwhelming first term appears a questionable gambit.
Prime Minister Will Confront Resistant Cabinet Members
Assuming the premiership before turning 35, Attal must immediately assert credibility over key ministers decades older with far greater governing pedigree.
Heavyweights like Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire have cut imposing figures during lengthy careers in French politics. Persuading them to follow the lead of a prime minister less than half their age could prove challenging.
And if Macron’s party endures an expected trouncing in June’s European Parliament elections, Attal may enter a kind of limbo. He will have scant time to establish himself before poor election results prompt questions about his viability.
Normally, lackluster electoral showings prompt the replacement of the prime minister. But with Attal just entering the role, a quick dismissal could permanently damage his standing.
For now, Attal enjoys strong support among French voters and lawmakers who find him polished and compelling. Even opposition figures acknowledge his gifts as an energetic communicator and savvy political operator.
But his ability to grow into the role of prime minister at this precarious juncture remains uncertain. With Macron’s presidency listing and the nationalists ascendant, expectations will be towering for the youthful prodigy dubbed the “wunderkind’s wunderkind.”
The coming months will demonstrate whether Attal is the dazzling leader France needs or merely a mirage of Macron’s fading promise. The former prime minister learned governing without a majority can be an impossible task. Soon enough, Gabriel Attal will get his own education in the limits of even the giddiest political stardom.