World

France's new prime minister will never overshadow Macron

17 May 2022

5:07 AM

17 May 2022

5:07 AM

Meet Élisabeth Borne, the new prime minister of France. Borne has hardly worked a day in the private sector. She is a technocrat to her bone marrow. She has never been elected to anything. And she will never, ever threaten president Emmanuel Macron. ‘She’s like Jean Castex (the outgoing prime minister) in drag, without the comical side,’ sighs one Paris insider.

The job of prime minister in France is generally hellish, essentially that of a whipping boy, and Borne faces numerous vexing dossiers. At the top of the pile is the cost of living crisis, over which her power seems minimal. She’ll also get pension reform, so she will be blamed for the inevitable riots to come. She’s stronger on running railways than economics.

But her first task is to lead Macron’s slate of candidates in the two-round National Assembly elections in June. She has yet to demonstrate any talent for inspiring voters, but it seems inevitable that Macron will win his presidential majority in any case.

Borne, 61, whose father was a Russian Jewish refugee, is at least not a graduate of the École National d’Administration, but that doesn’t mean she missed out on the indoctrination it offers to the French elite. She was a polytechnicienne, the elite state-run engineering school known as X, whose students are in theory members of the army, and who parade in uniforms, with swords.


She subsequently picked up further degrees from the École des Ponts, another of the prestigious Grand Écoles and the Collège des Ingénieurs, a business school, although she hardly descended to the grubby world of commerce, becoming instead a senior civil servant. I search in vain for her having expressed strong opinions on anything.

She has a lengthy curriculum vitae but notably has occupied few of her numerous sinecures for very long. She was briefly at Eiffage, a parastatal construction enterprise which relies on state contracts, otherwise her career has been entirely at the public trough. She was an aide to Ségolène Royal, a socialist minister in several undistinguished left-wing governments and mother of the four children of former president François Hollande; a functionary at the Marie de Paris; a prefect, where she also got to wear a splendid uniform; SNCF, the national railway, and the chief of RATP, the Paris public transport operator.

She was then transport minister in the government of Macron’s first prime minister, Édouard Philippe, then minister for ecology and lately minister of employment, under Philippe, without stirring much more than a ripple.

Her political career has been entirely untested by exposure to actual voters although she will now be parachuted into a safe seat in next month’s legislative elections. I think it’s fair to suggest that not one French voter in 50 had ever heard of her before her ascension to the Hôtel Matignon tonight.

A nominal socialist, although not evidently especially ideological, Borne enables Macron to build a bridge to the French left, although her selection seems to have been based more on how boring she is than in her qualities as a vote getter. She is only the second woman to be prime minister here. The first, Edith Cresson, served less than a year under François Mitterrand from 1991-1992.

It will be surprising if she serves much longer as prime minister than she has in any of her previous sinecures but the role of prime ministers in France is usually to be disposable, whenever the president needs someone to blame. Married, divorced with one child, deep down she’s rather dull, one of those swots some of us remember from college, rarely separated from a slide rule. She’s not a choice that’s going to set the voters buzzing nor will she ever cast a shadow over her boss.

Mme Borne said tonight she hopes to inspire all the young girls in France with her premiership. Qui vivra verra, as they say here – who lives, will see. Perhaps I’m wrong but she seems to have the job mostly because it suits Macron. There’s no evidence of any political talent. But possibly that’s why he chose her. She only has to stay in post a year to be the longest-serving woman prime minister in French history.

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