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Elisabeth Borne must win at legislative elections to remain French PM

Simon Heffer looks at why she is standing for election to the Assemblée nationale, what happens if she loses and what awaits her as prime minister if she wins

Elisabeth Borne, French prime minister

One does not need to be in the Assemblée nationale to be prime minister of France, but Elisabeth Borne has something to prove Pic: GERARD BOTTINO / Shutterstock

Elisabeth Borne, the new French prime minister and only the second woman to hold the office, was more or less unknown outside her country when handed the job by President Macron.

Indeed, she was more or less unknown inside her country, as a poll taken just before her appointment showed that 45% of her compatriots did not recognise her.

Accustomed to multi-tasking

However, she has had a long career of some distinction as a public servant, and has a reputation as a workaholic. 

She once ran RATP, the Paris public transport network, she was the prefect of Poitou-Charentes, and during President Macron’s first term she was an industrious but low-profile minister dealing, successively, with transport, the environment and employment.

A socialist who didn’t join the Parti Socialiste

She trained as an engineer and became a socialist at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. 

However, she makes it clear she never joined the Parti Socialiste, even though her career as a technocrat took her through the cabinets of Lionel Jospin, Bertrand Delanoë, Jack Lang, Ségolène Royal and François Hollande.

Where French haute politique is concerned, she unquestionably knows her way around. 

And, quite rightly, she stands on her dignity: she has demanded she be known as Mme la Première ministre, and not le Premier ministre.

Never been elected to office

There is, however, an obstacle in the way of the confirmation of the Borne supremacy, and she has chosen to place it before her.

Never having been elected to anything in her life, she wants to fight the legislative election in a seat in Calvados, near to where her mother was born.

One does not need to be in the Assemblée nationale to be prime minister of France, but she, clearly, is determined she has something to prove. 

Her father was a résistant who ended up in a concentration camp and committed suicide when Ms Borne was a schoolgirl; she has courage in her blood.

Standing in legislatives is an empty gesture

Perhaps in running in these elections, to be held on June 12 and 19, she also has a sensible eye to her country’s democratic reputation (and an ear to those who are unhappy with the present constitutional arrangements, and want a sixth republic).

The exercise is mildly futile, however. Assuming Ms Borne and her fellow ministers who are also running are elected, they must then hand over their constituencies to their deputies while they run France.

Election gamble

If she loses, Mr Macron will be looking for another prime minister, hoist by his own petard, because that is a ruling he has made for all those taking part in the election.

Given it took him three weeks to settle on Ms Borne – his other possible candidates, apparently all women, were said not to tick so many boxes, a vital exercise when trying to run what is effectively a one-party coalition – the President will have an unenviable task to find another one.

Leftist alliance still pushing for Mélenchon as PM

Perhaps the most interesting element of these legislative elections, other than the presence of a female prime minister, is that parties largely seem to have had their day in France.

Ms Borne leads a coalition in President Macron’s image that calls itself Ensemble, or ‘together’; its main rival is something called ‘Nupes’, which stands for Nouvelle Union Populaire Ecologique et Sociale, an alliance of Leftists, hard Leftists and Greens whose aim is to replace Ms Borne, whether she wins in Calvados or not, with the veteran agitator Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

At the time of writing, polls suggest this dream is highly unlikely to be fulfilled. 

If it were, a period of gruesome cohabitation would lie ahead of France, with an egotistical and self-righteous president going head-to-head with an egotistical and self-righteous demagogue.

French electorate should vote for stability

It seems the French electorate is more than aware of how horrific this would be for the future prosperity and stability of their country at a time when things are already, to put it mildly, uncertain. 

They should have more sense than to do such a thing.

The Nupes manifesto has no fewer than 650 promises, including a minimum net salary of €1,500, retirement at 60, price controls and the creation of that sixth republic.

Not only would it probably bankrupt France, but it might lead the country for months or years into a constitutional quagmire when it has more important and urgent problems to tackle.

Polls nevertheless suggest the Nupes could end up with 185 of the Assemblée’s 577 seats. 

Union stand-off could haunt Borne

In choosing Ms Borne, with her centre-left credentials, Mr Macron has tried to deflect some of those who might otherwise have backed the Mélenchon coalition from doing so.

He must hope that works. 

There were defections early on in the last legislative term from the Macron alliance, and were that to happen again the Macroniste prime minister could have a tremendously difficult job actually governing.

Ms Borne has one blot on her copybook where the Left are concerned, and that is from her days overseeing transport when she broke some of the old labour practices of the SNCF and faced its unions down in a strike that lasted 37 days.

Tasked with raising retirement age

But for the future, her main battle will be to keep a presidential promise to raise the retirement age to 65 – which, given the state of the French public finances and growing longevity, is probably still too low.

It will nonetheless be fiercely contested, as it has been since Nicolas Sarkozy first suggested it 15 years ago, and Ms Borne (if she survives the election) will need all her reputation for toughness and steel if she is to get the reform through.

Technocracy – with the absence of political passion that it invokes – may indeed be the best policy for her, as she just strives to get on with it.

But if Ensemble wins it may have a distressingly short honeymoon, followed by a long period of turbulence, as a France of post-party politics finds its new equilibrium

Related articles

Laws, national defence: what is the role of the French prime minister?

Élisabeth Borne: Six facts about France’s new prime minister

United Left, Macron rebrand: Why French politics is in a state of flux

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