Taking Aim at Left-Leaning Voters, Macron Names Élisabeth Borne as Prime Minister

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.

“The president of the Republic has appointed Élisabeth Borne prime minister and has tasked her with forming a government,” the French presidency said in a statement.

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 is only the second woman to occupy that position.

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 her immediate predecessor, Jean 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.

Ms. Borne was appointed shortly after Mr. Castex, the current prime minister, 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.

That boiled over during the weekend as names of supposed front-runners filled the news media, leaked anonymously by political insiders.

Ms. Borne, 61, was one of the favorites. She will be running in June’s legislative elections, in the Calvados area of Normandy, and is seen 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 his election in 2017, moving to the environment after transportation, and then on to labor issues — key assets for a prime minister who will have to spearhead France’s green transition while juggling a contentious plan to raise the legal age of retirement.

Ms. Borne, who studied at the prestigious École Polytechnique and worked in several top French companies and political institutions, is a typical product of France’s elitist meritocracy. As transportation minister, she successfully spearheaded an overhaul of the national railway company in 2018 despite widespread strikes.

The new government’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.

It had been widely expected that Mr. Macron would 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 and Margaret Thatcher dominated their countries’ politics for decades. She recalled being the target of an incessant barrage of sexist attacks, including over her outfits, after she was appointed by François Mitterrand, France’s 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, said in Berlin last week on the first foreign trip of his new term that his next prime minister 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 elections are 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.”

France’s prime ministers play an important role under the country’s constitutional framework. But the system gives presidents a much more powerful office, both by design and in practice, and they often view their prime ministers as close collaborators or subordinates, not autonomous policymakers.

Unlike in many European countries, where the executive is often chosen by the parties that control the most seats in Parliament, France’s prime ministers are appointed directly by the president.

Twice, Mr. Macron has chosen little-known politicians over established heavyweights who might have been harder to keep on a tight leash.

In 2020, Mr. Macron traded in his prime minister of three years, Mr. Philippe, for Mr. Castex, a relatively unknown technocrat who had helped steer France through the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. And while Mr. Philippe has become one of France’s most popular politicians, he was the relatively unknown right-wing mayor of Le Havre, a port town in northern France, when Mr. Macron appointed him prime minister in 2017.

Once in office, 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 broad outlines of the president’s will, although they are still important members of the executive branch — leading France’s formidable bureaucracy, for instance.

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, are rare. They have only occurred three times in France’s modern history, and they became less likely in 2000, when the duration of presidential terms was brought down to five years from seven and the timing of presidential elections was synchronized with legislative ones.


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