Macron’s fall gal – POLITICO

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PARIS — France’s Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has stayed in power longer than her only female predecessor — but her days as Emmanuel Macron’s chief lieutenant might be numbered.

In the early 1990s, the premiership of Edith Cresson, the only other woman to have led a government in France, lasted just 10 months and ended in turmoil. April marks 10 months since Borne was appointed prime minister: According to a government adviser who spoke to Playbook Paris, the French president could not afford to fire Borne until now because the optics of another female prime minister beating Cresson’s unflattering record would be too damaging.

It’s anyone’s guess now when Borne will be shown the door, or whether she will manage to save her job by weathering the political crisis, ahead of a crucial decision on the legality of a contentious pension reform expected Friday by the country’s Constitutional Council.

After the Macron-Borne duo at the helm of the Fifth Republic decided to force through the highly unpopular reform without a parliamentary vote last month — a move that emboldened protesters throughout the country — there is much talk in French political circles that the president wants his prime minister to take the blame, and could go as far as firing her in order to nail a political reset.

Over the past few weeks, Borne has cut a rather lonely figure — dealing with the reform’s fallout on the front lines. Macron tasked her with an impossible mission: Assuage unions without backing down on increasing the retirement age to 64, and build a broader political coalition in a National Assembly still reeling from the pension reform, where most of the opposition leaders have called for her resignation.

For weeks, the French president has appeared to be buying himself some time until Friday’s verdict. “Borne is extremely useful to Macron; she is so dead that she is entirely in his hands. He will let her run around until she has no blood left,” a former top Elysée official told POLITICO, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Well aware that her neck is on the line, Borne pulled a bold move Friday: She counter-attacked. Speaking to the French press while Macron was on the other side of the world in China, the usually discreet prime minister publicly distanced herself from the president’s harsh words on unions. “Before going to look for allies to vote on texts, it’s important to say where we want to go,” she said, “we must give meaning and breathe life into the action. I’m not just here to administer the country.” The Elysée immediately clapped back by reiterating Macron’s ask for Borne to work on a roadmap for the next months.

‘Borne out’

The relationship between France’s head of state and the country’s second-ever female prime minister was never a close one, and Borne wasn’t even Macron’s first choice. He initially wanted Catherine Vautrin from conservative party Les Républicains, who eventually didn’t get the top job because of her past opposition to same-sex marriage.

Borne comes from the other side of the political aisle — the Socialists’ ranks — and is perceived as a technocrat rather than a smooth political operator. An engineer by training, with a diploma from one of the country’s top elite schools Polytechnique, the e-cigarette chain smoker has been in the French government since Macron rose to power, as transport, ecology and labor minister. The pension reform is not her first showdown with unions: As transport minister back in 2018, she stood firm against those opposed to abolishing the special status of the state railway company SNCF’s workers. And she won.

The former head of France’s state-owned public transport operator is known for her attention to detail and dry sense of humor, but also for being demanding and tough, at times reportedly humiliating her staff. This has earned her the nickname “Borne out” — a pun on burnout. “Half of the government [members] I am leading are morons,” she once reportedly said.

When she became prime minister, Borne initially successfully softened her image, after spin doctors encouraged her to speak about her difficult childhood — something she rarely discusses in public. Her father, a Jewish member of the French Resistance was deported to Nazi camp Auschwitz-Birkenau during World War II. He survived the concentration camp but committed suicide when Borne was 11 years old. He left behind a bankrupt business and a wife unable to provide care for her children. Borne was taken under the wing of the French state and left home at 16.

The curse of French PMs

Over the past weeks, the relationship between Borne and Macron deteriorated as the country sank into a social and political crisis over the pension reform.

When the prime minister pledged, in a bid to quell dissatisfaction, she would no longer use the 49.3 tool except for budgetary bills, the president privately described her comment as “stupid,” according to Playbook Paris.

Several names are already circulating on a potential replacement for Borne, including Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin | Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

“Is [the situation] sustainable? No. Ministers can’t [go on] a [TV or radio] show without being asked [about Borne]. We have to find a new breath with a move that resets the political conversation according to the priorities,” a government member told POLITICO, speaking on condition of anonymity to speak more freely about their boss.

Traditionally in France, the prime minister holds a thankless job, running the daily life of governing the country but relying on their boss, the president, to make decisions of importance. It’s sometimes seen as a cursed job, as a classic move for an embattled president is to fire their prime minister to breathe new life into their mandate — regardless of competence or performance. 

In the French capital, where speculation on reshuffling is a sport enjoyed by many, several names are already circulating on a potential replacement for Borne, including Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin.

Firing Borne, however, is unlikely to assuage the French people’s anger, which is often directed at the president himself. It might also not be enough to fully move on from the political crisis, according to Bruno Jeanbart, vice president of the polling institute OpinionWay. 

“Usually, when a president changes his prime minister, it signals a change of policy,” Jeanbart said. “But it’s really unclear what that change of policy could be,” he added. “Even when [Macron] was reelected president, there wasn’t a clear plan for the next five years.”

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