Europe & Eurasia European Union France Politics & Diplomacy
New Atlanticist January 13, 2024

Can Macron’s new cabinet of ‘revolutionaries’ remake French politics? 

By Léonie Allard and Marie Jourdain

The “revolutionaries” are back in France. Following a government reshuffle this past week, French President Emmanuel Macron met with his new cabinet on Friday, telling the ministers, “I don’t want managers. I want revolutionaries.” The reshuffle came a few weeks after political turmoil related to the passage of a strict new immigration law and two years into Macron’s second term, but the change is not simply reactive to politics current and past. It also reveals the legacy Macron hopes to leave on his party and French politics.

Gabriel Attal, thirty-four years old, is the first-ever openly gay prime minister in France, and he is the youngest of the Fifth Republic. He is a symbol of what is called the “Macron generation” in France. The newly nominated government officials—in the ministries of interior, foreign affairs, defense, and gender equality and the fight against discrimination, among others—are close advisors of Macron who have contributed to building up his Renaissance party, formerly known as En Marche, both in France and at the European Parliament. In the final years of his term, Macron is contributing to the emergence of new political figures in France to pursue his vision—a “renaissance,” which is reflected in the new name his party adopted in 2022.

Macron has been a force in French politics, but Macronism, as a project and a practice, has been under strain recently. The most recent legislative elections, in June 2022, failed to give to his party an absolute majority. While many incumbent ministers remain in their posts, how might the reshuffle shape the remainder of Macron’s term and Macronism thereafter? There is a French expression, La montagne a accouché d’une souris (The mountain has given birth to a mouse), that warns of great expectations that produce less impressive results.

It was about Europe. It still is.

Macron’s remaining three years in office will likely continue the agenda he set in 2017, when he laid out his priorities to “rebuild Europe” in the now famous Sorbonne speech. For him, the European Parliament elections taking place in June 2024 are about ensuring both the future trajectory of the European Union (EU) and Macron’s party as a settled political force in French politics. The nomination of Minister of Europe and Foreign Affairs Stephane Séjourné, EU member of parliament and leader of the Renew Europe group, signals that the presidency and the government will be highly involved in the upcoming elections.

The upcoming European elections are key to giving EU institutions the tools, dynamics, and legitimacy to address challenges ahead. Among these challenges are a transatlantic relationship that might face a future US president who is openly hostile to the EU; questions of European security and enlargement, including to Ukraine, which was recently given candidate status; and the future of the European Green Deal, the most important piece of legislation at the European level in recent years.

A success in European elections is important for Macron at home, too. In 2019, elections in France brought the extreme right-wing National Rally into the European Parliament. It would be a major domestic setback for Macron to govern France with his party poorly represented in the Parliament.

A call to the youth

The French youth, contrary to their elders, voted more for the extreme left and right than for Macron in 2022. The French government’s 2023 pension reform faced opposition from most of the public except for those older than sixty-five. (While 74 percent of people in France under thirty-five opposed it, 50 percent of people over sixty-five supported it.) The reshuffle sends a strong signal that Macron wants to change the perception of his party among the younger French public. 

In political terms, by choosing Gabriel Attal, the most popular political figure in France, Macron is trying to keep at bay the rise of popular extreme right-wing figures among younger generations. Education will remain at the core of the government’s agenda with Macron, who regards it a domaine reserve (exclusive domain) for his government to set policy on, and with Attal, who was briefly minister for education and who said that he would take the “cause of the school” with him to Matignon, the prime minister’s residence. In recent years, Macron has introduced wide-ranging reforms to secondary school curriculums. His education policies focused on reinforcing citizen engagement of the youth and implementing secular policies (laicité) in the aftermath of a terror attack and the assassinations of history professor Samuel Paty in 2020 and secondary school teacher Dominique Bernard in 2023.

The end of the en même temps method

Macron’s trademark, the en même temps or “at the same time” method, disrupted French domestic politics, which is traditionally divided between right and left wings. He presented his policies as neither left nor right, but a simultaneous synthesis of the two. In practice, Macron’s previous governments have included both right- and left-wing political figures. 

The initial draft of the December 2023 immigration law would have exemplified this middle ground approach, but ended up dividing the majority as the bill moved to a much more pronounced far-right-leaning text—leading to the one minister’s resignation. The reshuffle confirms a change of tactics. The previous prime minister had to bypass parliament twenty-three times to pass bills after legislators failed to reach consensus. 

In that regard, the biggest news of this reshuffle is the appointment of Rachida Dati, an influential right-wing figure in the Republicans party, as minister of culture. This is a political coup for the French right and a tactic on Macron’s part to more effectively pass legislation with the moderate wing of the Republicans. In the meantime, the future of left-wing ministers (such as Clément Beaune, who opposed the immigration law) remain unclear, while Minister of the Interior Gérard Darmanin, a right-wing politician, remains.

The power of political experience

In his initial rise to the presidency, Macron championed the idea that knowledge and skill were more important than political experience. His new government seems to reverse that formulation, elevating several well-known political figures, including his prime minister. It also includes fewer members of academia or civil society compared to his earlier governments. 

The new government is also a change in terms of representation. Macron had made the equality between men and women the “cause of his mandate,” but the predominance of men now among what are considered the most important portfolios (interior, defense, and the economy) and the departure of Élisabeth Borne, the only female prime minister since 1992, is significant.

Finally, the nomination of Rachida Dati, who is facing charges for corruption and influence peddling, breaks Macron’s commitment in 2017 to ensure the resignation of any minister who would be facing indictment. While the image of such a government might come at a cost, Macron seems to be making the bet that the ability to govern and pass laws more efficiently outweighs the risks. If one pillar of Macronism remains rock solid after all these changes in government, it is pragmatism.

Léonie Allard is a visiting fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, currently in residence from the French Ministry of Armed Forces.

Marie Jourdain is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. She previously worked for the French Ministry of Defense’s Directorate General for International Relations and Strategy.

Further reading

Image: Minister for the Economy and Finances Bruno Le Maire, President Emmanuel Macron, Labour, Health and Solidarities Minister Catherine Vautrin, Armies Minister Sebastien Lecornu, attending the start of the first cabinet meeting following the appointment of a new government the day before, on January 12, 2024 at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France. Photo by Eric Taschaen/Pool/ABACAPRESS.COM