Today’s news is that France has a new prime minister. In advance of next month’s legislative election, president Emmanuel Macron has appointed former labor minister Élisabeth Borne to the job, following the resignation of Jean Castex. She becomes the country’s second female prime minister, after Édith Cresson in 1991-92.
The precedent is not an auspicious one; Cresson held the position for less than a year, resigning after her Socialist Party’s poor performance in regional elections (which presaged its landslide defeat in the 1993 legislative election). She later served as a minister (“commissioner”) in the European Union, with equally unhappy results.
Since then a number of other women have reached high office, and on three occasions a woman has reached the second round of the presidential election. But the two top jobs have been a male preserve for thirty years until now.
Borne also started out as a Socialist; trained as an engineer, she worked as an adviser to Socialist governments in the 1990s and as chief-of-staff to Ségolène Royal, the then environment minister, in 2014-15. But in 2017 she endorsed Macron in the presidential election and joined his party, Republic on the Move (REM), becoming a minister in the governments of Édouard Philippe and then Castex.
Her two predecessors, however, both came from the centre-right – this is the first time that Macron has looked to the centre-left for a prime minister. And since it coincides with a new-found unity on the left of the spectrum, under the leadership of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s far left (as we discussed last week), it inevitably raises questions about what Macron’s second term is going to mean for the French party system.
If Macron was looking for someone who would be a strong centrist contender to succeed him in 2027, Borne is unlikely to be the one: she is 61 and has never held elective office. She is fundamentally a technocrat, albeit an accomplished one. But her appointment does seem to signal that the president is committed to continuing to balance between left and right. After something of a rightward tilt in the last year or so to meet the challenge of Marine Le Pen, it was time for a swing back towards the left.
It also suggests that he sees Socialist voters as prime targets in the legislative election. The Socialist Party has only been allocated 70 seats (out of 577) to contest in the new left-wing alliance; elsewhere, Socialists will be asked to vote for Greens, Communists or (mostly) Mélenchon’s LFI. Attracting more of them to a progressive-looking REM is an obvious way to try to bolster the government’s majority.
Does that leave the government more vulnerable to attack on its right flank? It might, but since the right-of-centre forces are divided between the centre-right, which currently has the second-largest legislative delegation after REM, and the far right, which holds only a handful of seats but outvoted the centre-right by almost five to one in the presidential election, Macron may feel rather more secure in that direction.
One day Macron may feel obliged to move decisively one way or the other. It remains true, as I said last month, that “a country with three major political forces, of which only one can safely be allowed to hold power, is in a perilous situation indeed.” But for now, his balancing act remains firmly in business.