Macron appoints Élisabeth Borne as prime minister

Former employment minister is only second woman to hold the post in French history

French president Emmanuel Macron on Monday appointed the outgoing employment minister Élisabeth Borne as prime minister. She is the first woman to hold the post in 31 years, and only the second in French history.

Ms Borne was in charge of the explosive dossier of pension reform in the previous Castex government. Mr Macron wants to revive the unpopular reform, which will raise the retirement age to 64-65.

Ms Borne's first responsibility will be to win the June 12th and 19th legislative elections for Mr Macron's Ensemble coalition. If she is reconfirmed as prime minister, she will negotiate with trade unions and defend pension reform in the National Assembly.

The left-wing and environmentalist coalition Nupes, led by the far-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon, is the greatest threat to a renewed majority for Mr Macron.

Addressing the cost-of-living crisis, limiting government debt and fulfilling Mr Macron's promise to double the speed at which France reduces carbon emissions are other challenges facing the new prime minister.

Ms Borne (61) was Mr Macron’s first choice for prime minister when he was re-elected three weeks ago, but he nonetheless gave serious consideration to several others. An Ifop poll for the Journal du Dimanche showed three-quarters of the French wanted a woman prime minister.

Standing on the steps of the prime minister’s office, Ms Borne dedicated her nomination “to all little girls, telling them to follow their dreams. Nothing must slow the fight for the place of women in our society.”

Mr Macron wanted a woman with experience in the environment and from the political left.

"It was high time", the previous woman prime minister, Édith Cresson, told BFM television. Ms Cresson was appointed prime minister by François Mitterrand in 1991 and remained in office less than one year. She was undermined by virulent criticism from media and men from within her own Socialist Party.

“France is a particularly backward country” when it comes to promoting women in politics, Ms Cresson said. “One has only to see how women are treated in the National Assembly. I wish her great courage.”

Ms Borne’s austere, no-nonsense attitude contrasts with Ms Cresson’s femme fatale aura when she was in office. Ms Borne is considered reliable rather than charismatic. Over the past five years, she headed the ministries of transport, the environment and employment. Mr Macron knows her well and risks no surprises with her.

Ms Borne headed Ségolène Royal's cabinet when Ms Royal was environment minister from 2014 until 2015. Her counterpart in the economy ministry at the time, Alexis Kohler, is today secretary general of the Élysée and Mr Macron's right-hand man. Ms Borne and Mr Kohler were commissioned to investigate what the state auditor called the "exceptional profitability" of the country's auto-route network and were accused of making a sweetheart deal with the company holding the contract.

Ms Borne subsequently ran the Paris public transport company RATP. Then, as transport minister, she opened the state railway company SNCF to competition.

Ms Borne was always considered close to the Socialist Party. She supported Mr Macron in 2017 and joined other former Socialist cabinet ministers, the Territoires de progrès “current”, of Mr Macron’s majority in 2020.

Ms Borne is the daughter of a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Breton woman who owned a pharmaceutical laboratory. She trained as an engineer in two of France’s prestigious grandes écoles and has had a long and successful career as a high-ranking civil servant. She has never been elected to public office but is a candidate for a seat in the National Assembly for the Calvados department in the upcoming elections.

The composition of the new government is expected to be announced within days.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times