On Monday, May 16, Macron named labour minister Elisabeth Borne as the new French Prime Minister (PM). In France, the President can technically pick whoever he wants for the role, though as the National Assembly has the power to force their resignation through a censure motion, the PM is usually chosen from France’s National Assembly and should reflect the will of its majority.
Borne replaces former French PM Jean Castex, who announced his departure already after Macron’s presidential victory on April 24 against far-right Marine Le Pen in order to pave the way for a cabinet overhaul. Castex formally resigned earlier on Monday at the Elysée presidential palace, saying that he would “continue to serve the country” but would “take a step aside by leaving national politics.”
In response, Macron tweeted that he was proud of the work Castex had accomplished as well as of the results that they had obtained during his time in office.
Merci à @JeanCastex, à son gouvernement et à toute son équipe. Durant près de deux ans, il a agi avec passion et engagement au service de la France. Soyons fiers du travail accompli et des résultats obtenus ensemble. pic.twitter.com/AmJ2WkCety
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 16, 2022
A Win for Women
Borne’s appointment makes her, at 61, the second woman to hold this post ever.
“I would like to dedicate this nomination to all the little girls by telling them ‘Go after your dreams!’ Nothing should slow the pace of the fight for the place of women in our society,” Borne shared her feelings as the second female PM in French history at the transition of power ceremony.
Edith Cresson, the first female French MP who served from 1991 to 1992 under the socialist leader Francois Mitterrand, commented on Borne’s appointment on French television, praising Macron’s choice:
“It was really time there was another woman PM and I know Mrs Borne is a remarkable person with a lot of experience…I think it is a very good choice”.
At the ceremony, held in the Hotel de Matignon, Castex told Borne in reference to the hard work involved in the Prime Minister role:
“Madame la Premiere Ministre, the role (of Prime Minister) is not exempted from public exposure and criticism, dear Elisabeth, people even say that’s what it had been created for.”
So, who is Elisabeth Borne?
Borne was raised in Paris by her mother from Normandy. Her father was a Jewish refugee to France and died in 1972 when Elizabeth was a child. In obtaining her French citizenship, Borne reportedly stated that her family roots symbolise the integration of refugees in France.
Described by France 24 as a “soft-spoken career bureaucrat”, Borne has never held an elected office. She trained as an engineer and entered politics as a “woman of the left,” working as chief of staff to the Socialist politician Ségolène Royal, and then as ecology minister to President Francois Hollande.
In 2015, she became CEO of the French state’s transport company RATP, before joining Macron’s centrist party in 2017 (newly renamed “Renaissance”). Under Macron, she was Transport minister and then Environment minister, roles in which she pushed through bike friendly policies but also faced a major strike from the SNCF rail company against plans to open the train network to competition, a bill she eventually passed.
As labour minister, a position she held since 2020, Borne oversaw negotiations with unions that resulted in a cut to unemployment benefits for some job seekers and reduced monthly unemployment payments, prompting criticism from workers’ unions and from the left. Under Borne, however, unemployment in France fell to its lowest level in 15 years.
Despite her career breadth, Borne has admitted that she doesn’t like to be centre stage. As an IFOP poll found last month, 45% of respondents didn’t even know who she was.
Agence-France Presse’ reports that she is precise in technical details and loves maths and rationality; she vapes discreetly in Parliament and has been nicknamed “Borne out” by her colleagues for her demanding leadership, a pun on “burnout.”
“She’s a workaholic, she’s really someone who can work until 3 am and come back at 7 am,” said one of Borne’s colleagues, who added that she is “good in the dialogue with the central administrations.”
Macron’s win in the presidential election came in at 58.54%, 17 points ahead of his extreme right rival Marine Le Pen, a surprising margin for what was a closely contended election. Despite this success, however, Macron still needs to display understanding for the frustrations of people who did not vote or who supported Le Pen on the right or Melenchon on the left.
Strategically, Macron therefore needed a PM with green and social policy credentials to appease these citizens. In her brief inaugural address, Borne accordingly stated that France must act “faster and stronger” to fight climate change and pledged to further work to protect the French’s purchasing power, which polls reveal is the number one voter concern. This is also important to help counter the challenge from Jean Luc Melenchon in the upcoming parliamentary election.
Shortly after Borne’s appointment, Macron tweeted, “Ecology, health, education, full employment, democratic revival, Europe and security: together, with the new government, we will continue to act tirelessly for the French people.,”
Madame la Première ministre,
Écologie, santé, éducation, plein-emploi, renaissance démocratique, Europe et sécurité : ensemble, avec le nouveau gouvernement, nous continuerons d’agir sans relâche pour les Françaises et les Français.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) May 16, 2022
Borne’s experience in negotiating with trade unions, which she displayed during Macron’s first term, will be crucial to Macron as he prepares an overhaul of the pensions and benefits system that could lead to street protests. Her knowledge of state workings is also expected to help Macron push through more difficult reforms, including his most controversial election pledge: To raise the retirement age.
“Mrs Borne is against raising minimum wages and for retiring at 65. Here we go for a new season of social mistreatment,” Melenchon tweeted.
Élisabeth #Borne est là pour faire passer la réforme des retraites à 65 ans. Si vous laissez faire, ils le feront parce qu'ils sont déterminés. Si vous élisez un gouvernement de la Nouvelle #UnionPopulaire, c'est la retraite à 60 ans. pic.twitter.com/TJCI41NB23
— Jean-Luc Mélenchon (@JLMelenchon) May 18, 2022
Borne’s to-do list: Parliamentary elections, and Macron’s financial and environmental promises
Article 21 and 22 of the French Constitution state that the PM “directs Government actions” and “determines and conducts National policy,” whereas the President instead concentrates more on national defence, foreign policy and governmental efficiency.
As the new PM, Borne’s first responsibility will be to make sure that Macron’s centrist party performs well in France’s parliamentary election on June 12 and 19 and wins the majority of seats (289) in the National Assembly
Winning a majority in the Assembly is crucial for Macron as it is a prerequisite to having influence on the chamber debates or Assembly workings, receiving more power in the Assembly and also financial assistance needed to take on parliamentary staff and offices.
Macron has promised a bill to address the rising cost of living in France that should be presented just after the parliamentary election. It includes overhauling the pensions and benefits system, retirement age, and changes to France’s schools and health service. These have received huge criticism from the left, and will require a solid parliament majority to be passed.
Macron also promised that the new prime minister would be in charge of “green planning,” seeking to accelerate France’s implementation of climate policies to curb emissions and make France a global climate leader and “the first major nation to abandon gas, oil and coal”, as he prophesied.
Borne, alongside several other “green” ministers, faces immediate pressure to act on climate as France has in recent years fallen behind on emissions reduction and renewable energy targets.
Julien Bayou, head of the Green party, EELV, which has allied with Mélenchon’s party for the parliamentary elections, said that “Hopes are low” that Macron’s party could drastically cut emissions or address global warming. Cécile Duflot, the former Green leader, queried whether Borne will have “any latitude of action from the president, who has never demonstrably put in place his engagements on ecology?”
Jean-François Julliard, head of Greenpeace in France, said Borne needed to urgently and clearly set out how she would “transform French society” so it wasted less energy and resources.
On Tuesday, Borne told Renaissance lawmakers she would campaign for parliament election for the Calvados, Normandy seat, her mother’s birthplace, which would give her a crucial local base and a political standing beyond her reputation as a technocrat. It would also help her popularity in her premiership.
In sum, Borne’s priorities include environmental policy, an overhaul of the education and health system, returning France to full employment and restoring voters’ confidence in the democratic system. But rising concerns over the cost of living and Macron’s reputation in some groups as “haughty” mean Borne must engage to show that Macron’s party listens to voters on the ground as the parliamentary elections approach.
“She listens, but she doesn’t hear, she’s like Macron,” said Philippe Martinez of the left-wing CGT union.
However, Borne remains adamant that “Social democracy is still alive and it’s the president who is leading it” (as she told Le Figaro last year), echoing Macron’s view that “helping everyone to free themselves through work is a value of the left”.
The stakes, politically, economically and environmentally are high, but regardless, the appointment of the first French female prime minister in over 30 years was praised by many parties as an important step for equality on the often overly “macho” French political scene.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com. — In the Featured Photo: Elisabeth Borne. Featured Photo Credit: Flickr.