Borne becomes France’s second female prime minister

She will now be tasked primarily with ensuring that all government decisions are compatible with France’s goals to cut emissions, after years of France missing its targets.
France's Labour Minister Elisabeth Borne. Image: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images

President Emmanuel Macron on Monday named former labour minister Elisabeth Borne as France’s second female prime minister.

Borne, a 61-year-old technocrat once close to the Socialist party, takes over from Jean Castex. Macron named her transport minister in 2017 and she served as ecology minister from 2019 to 2020, before becoming labor minister. Prior to that, Borne was president of the publicly-owned Paris public transport network RATP.

She will now be tasked primarily with ensuring that all government decisions are compatible with France’s goals to cut emissions, after years of France missing its targets.

The names of other government members will be unveiled in coming days, with fewer ministers than before, according to a person familiar with Macron’s thinking.

Borne has handled tricky missions as minister, including the reform of the national train service SNCF and unemployment benefits. An official in Macron’s office described her as a left-wing woman with deep knowledge of the state, local politics and business, although she has never been elected. She’ll be running for parliament in June, the official said.

Macron defeated rival far-right Marine Le Pen in the presidential election in April, by a much smaller margin than last time around, in 2017. In his victory speech, the 44-year-old centrist acknowledged rising discontent and vowed to heal rifts.

Appointing Borne is intended as an olive branch to those voters who only rallied round Macron to stop Le Pen from taking office. It’s also an attempt to change the narrative.

Macron began his first term saying feminism would be his “great cause,” but he went on to appoint an interior minister accused of rape (an allegation the minister denied) and a justice minister who ridiculed feminist ideals.

On Macron’s watch, France dropped to 20th place from 9th in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Political Empowerment subindex.

Women have long been underrepresented in French politics. They secured the right to vote and hold office only in 1944, much later than Germany and the US. And although this year’s presidential election was historic in the number of female candidates in the first round — four out of 12 — questions around women’s rights barely got a mention in the campaign.

Edith Cresson was named France’s first female prime minister in 1991, by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. Ultimately, she paid the price for his austerity measures and was replaced by a man after less than a year, amid low popularity.

Cresson, who is now 88, lashed out at the misogyny of the French political elite and said the country’s next woman premier would need “a lot of courage,” in a recent interview with newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

“The post of prime minister is a very difficult position,” she said, “and then if the difficulties are increased by the fact that the head of government is a woman, it complicates the political situation even more.”

Cresson pointed out that unlike her male counterparts, her appearance and clothing was often mocked, and she suffered from sexism. Famously, during a meeting with the biggest agriculture lobby, opponents held aloft posters that read “Edith, we hope you’re better in bed than as minister.”

When it came to winning over the French, Cresson didn’t help herself and became known for outlandish, insensitive comments. She once said that she didn’t want France to become another Japan (the success story at the time) because the French don’t want to live like “ants” and that being homosexual was an Anglo Saxon tradition.

Borne might not be in the job for very long, either, though for reasons outside her control. If Macron doesn’t obtain a majority in legislative elections due next month, he might have to select a premier from an opposing party representing the largest bloc. Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac both ended up doing that.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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