Et tu, Brute? (LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty)

January 15, 2024   6 mins
January 15, 2024   6 mins

This week’s French government reshuffle started in the usual endogamous Macron style, more like parthenogenesis than politics, with the nomination of the president’s “mini-me”, the 34-year-old Gabriel Attal, as his fourth PM in seven years. It ended with a dead cat slammed down on the Cabinet Room table yesterday: the arrival of the take-no-prisoners, Sarkozy-baby Rachida Dati as Minister of Culture, a job once held by the Nobel Prize winner AndrĂ© Malraux. A French-Moroccan national, Dati was Sarkozy’s Minister of Justice and party enforcer, blunt-spoken and an enemy of nuance. The daughter of a builder and a charwoman, with a lively personal life and a taste for Dior dresses and high heels, she made as many enemies as friends in a party not terribly keen on diversity.

That party, Les RĂ©publicains, now a sad rump that will struggle to poll 7% in June’s European elections, promptly expelled her. It won’t change her trajectory: a mediocre MEP in opposition, she has flourished as mayor of Paris’s posh 7th Arrondissement, where, from early misgivings at her flamboyance, the constituents have now become her biggest fans. The general opinion is that Dati, the consummate retail politician, gets things done: the streets are clean, the schools work, no letter goes unanswered. The 7th was the first Paris Mairie to provide Covid vaccinations, and Dati said no Paris resident from any neighbourhood would be turned away, enraging the hapless City Mayor Anne Hidalgo, whose job she is shooting for in 2026. Being the pepper and salt in an Attal Cabinet smooths her path towards that goal, just as it suits Emmanuel Macron, who courted her himself this week.

Until that moment, in the form of Attal, Macron seemed to have straightforwardly indulged himself with a compatible quasi-clone who’d run affairs in a concentrated style of the President’s own reactive moods. (It’s hard to call them vision, or ideas: they’re consecutive, often contradictory, always context-dependent.) The choice of Dati, the Marmite of French Right-wing politics, certainly signals that the strongman image Attal was sometimes finding hard to project is truly meant to finally address the slide of the French Overton Window Right-ward.

Currently, Macron presents as a conservative. This changes on demand: once the Economy Minister under the president he supplanted, François Hollande, he coined the “en mĂȘme temps” (“at the same time”) slogan during his victorious 2017 campaign to garner supporters from the Left and from the Right. It was one of the reasons he got rid of Attal’s predecessor, the loyal, hard-working, but dour Élisabeth Borne (dour doesn’t play well in Macron’s court; you need to look at all times like you’re having the time of your life). She had consistently failed to sell his latest showpiece bills in Parliament. In both cases, whether pensions reform or the recent immigration law, Macron had got the Socialist Borne to defend bills written to court the Right-wing vote — and both abhorred by the Left, Borne’s former political family. The legislative mess that ensued wasn’t of Borne’s making, but a reminder to the President that, what a bore, he had lost his majority.

Enter Gabriel Attal. From the very start he had proved himself one of Macron’s most successful Wunderkinder. A full 12 years younger than the youngest-ever president of the Fifth Republic, and like him an up-and-coming young Socialist under François Hollande, he rose within five years from an internship at the National Assembly to Macronista MP, having jumped onto the future president’s campaign team bandwagon. Articulate, preternaturally poised, he became a junior Education minister in 2018 at 29, Cabinet spokesman in 2020, Public Accounts minister in 2023, and Education Secretary one year later. He managed to talk up the latter job up so well (back to basics, secular principles, anti-bullying measures, wooing the conservative vote from the urban middle class to the more moderate end of Marine Le Pen’s voters) that no-one realised he left it without anything meaningful to show.

The obvious danger to Macron is (at least) two-fold. If Attal’s charmed trajectory continues, there’s a possibility that voters will prefer the 2.0 version to the somewhat ship-soiled original. Macron’s popularity has already tanked to 25-27%, while Attal polls at 48%, leaving all the conditions in place for three years of presidential lame-duckery. But it’s also possible that a fractious country, faced once again with a bright, snappy know-it-all who fails to project much empathy, will be reminded of the younger Macron seven years ago, and simply think: “Non, pas encore!”

If anything, Attal is already more camera-trained than Macron. Most TV coverage of this week’s reshuffle included footage of Attal aged nine, interviewed during a theatre class for a documentary at his school, École Alsacienne, a breeding ground for the Paris Ă©lite (think a combination of Winchester and St Paul’s). And, compared to the pre-digital Nineties video of another aspiring actor, the somewhat overwrought 15-year-old Macron, a gulf does open up. The latter, onstage at the end of term fĂȘte at his provincial Jesuit LycĂ©e (watched in the wings by his future wife and drama teacher Brigitte AuziĂšre); and Attal, the self-possessed golden child ticking off ComĂ©die Française leading parts on camera.

Though Attal never was an Adrian Mole, his early years were like those of another English comic creation: the little Sebastian Moon remembered by Bertie Wooster in Thank You Jeeves. “If ever there was a kid whose whole appearance seemed to call aloud to any right-minded boy to lure him into a quiet spot and inflict violence upon him, that kid was undeniably Sebastian Moon. He reminded me strongly of Little Lord Fauntleroy. I don’t know why it is, but I’ve never been able to bear with fortitude anything in the shape of a kid with golden curls
” No Wodehouse reader since Duff Cooper has ever mistaken his glorious jokes for reality, but it is interesting that Attal was bullied at school. Actors’ Studio-style, he even used it as a clever confession when getting the Education job, reaching out to a large constituency of worried parents.

He was also neatly defusing the fact that he is France’s first gay prime minister. His chief bully, Juan Branco, now a barrister who includes Julian Assange among his clients, was then and now brought to hysteria by Attal’s homosexuality. He later published an entire book denouncing the “elite hothouse” of his old school, tweeting the most unhinged accusations last Tuesday in case they’d been forgotten. This, if anything, has helped rather than harmed Attal — and lanced a possible boil early. But still, the minute his nomination was confirmed, the hard-Left leader Jean-Luc MĂ©lenchon coyly tweeted, (mis)quoting the title of a Henry de Montherlant play, “Malheur aux peuples dont les princes sont des enfants” (“Woe betide the peoples whose princes are children”). It was a riff on the 1951 La ville dont le prince est un enfant, one of the classics of allusive gay works in French literature.

Reliable reports say Attal took the tweet in stride, though at the ÉlysĂ©e Macron went ballistic. However, it’s likely that the President immediately saw what an own goal it was for the France Insoumise chief, and played it up at no risk, since even Marine Le Pen has been running a gay-friendly party for over a decade. And the Attal nomination is more about setting the ground for tomorrow’s battles. The National Rally’s list at the June European elections, which currently polls at almost one third of the vote (setting it well ahead of Macron’s Renaissance party at 20%), will be headed by the party president and Marine’s very own Wunderkind, the 28-year-old Jordan Bardella, a banlieue grandson of Italian and Algerian immigrants and a university dropout. Bardella joined what was then the National Front in 2012, aged just 16, “more for Marine than her father”, as he said at the time.

If anything, his career has soared even faster than Attal’s. At 19 he was a Regional Councillor of the Paris area. Soon, mirroring Attal’s trajectory, Bardella was party spokesman, and in 2019 he was elected the second-youngest MEP in history aged 23. As poised as Attal, but in a more relatable way, Bardella, without the benefit of a luxury education, has already held his own in television debates with the future French PM. They’re both fighting for the same marginal votes, beyond any core constituency. “When you sell a youthful image, it’s to reach out to old people,” as the political scientist Valerio Motta says.

If Attal clicks with Dati — and his colleagues say he’s been friends with her for some time — she will act as his guarantor, ensuring that his vow to “regenerate” France is not just spin. She is of a comparable age to Marine Le Pen, which creates, at least subconsciously, a kind of parallel between a young newcomer and the female politician with experience of failure as well as success. Certainly it lifts the current Cabinet from the colourless technocratic style that has marked the last seven years of Macron governance. No-one in the country doubts Dati is capable of taking the President on, even at the cost of her job. Attal’s friends have been saying all last week that he too is capable of independence, even wilfulness, against Macron when he thinks he is in error. If this tag-team works out, they both have higher hopes for the future. Attal would love to be Macron’s successor; Dati wants to reign over Paris. Even if they don’t succeed, it will make the French political scene more open and vibrant than it’s been in years.

Anne-Elisabeth Moutet is a Paris-based journalist and political commentator.