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

She is the country’s second-ever female head of government and takes on the ‘job from hell’. We look at her life, politics and hobbies

Élisabeth Borne is France’s new prime minister Pic: GERARD BOTTINO / Shutterstock

France has a new prime minister after President Emmanuel Macron yesterday (May 16) announced former labour minister Élisabeth Borne as the head of government.

Ms Borne, 61, takes over from Jean Castex, who announced his intention to step down and take a break following Mr Macron’s victory in the presidential elections in April. 

Read more: Lost glasses, Mr Lockdown: Memorable moments of French PM Jean Castex

Ms Borne’s nomination came after weeks of speculation over whom Mr Macron would name as prime minister. He is said to have been looking for someone “committed to addressing social, environmental and productivity issues”, Franceinfo reported

On handing over power to Ms Borne, Mr Castex offered his successor a final word of advice, saying, “madame la première ministre, this role is not exempt from public exposure and criticism. Dear Elisabeth, people even say that’s what it has been created for.”

His comment was a nod to the fact that the role of prime minister is often referred to as a “job from hell” (l’enfer de Matignon) as the person is positioned between the president and their ministers, between the majority and the opposition and is a constant target for the media. 

Ms Borne’s first test will be to reshuffle the cabinet and assemble her ‘dream team’ of ministers, ahead of the legislative elections in June for France’s 577 MPs are elected. 

We look at the new prime minister’s life, politics and hobbies

1. France’s second female PM

Ms Borne is France’s second-ever female prime minister. The first, Édith Cresson, spent a mostly unremarkable year in the role between May 1991 and April 1992.

Ms Borne acknowledged her predecessor in her inauguration speech yesterday. 

“I am obviously very moved this evening and I can't help but spare a thought for the first woman who held this position, Édith Cresson,” she said. 

She then dedicated her appointment to “all the little girls”, saying they should go after their dreams and that “nothing must slow down the fight for the place of women in our society”. 

Ms Cresson responded to Ms Borne’s acknowledgement, saying that she was “touched” that in a very short speech the new prime minister found time to speak about her. 

She added that Ms Borne has been appointed to the role for being “extraordinary” and not because she is a woman. 

However, she said that France’s political elite, not the population, is still “behind the times” in terms of gender equality. 

She cited the examples of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Angela Merkel in Germany as countries in which women were able to succeed for long periods of time in power.  

Read more: Will France’s next PM be a woman? If so, she will not be the first

2. Ward of the Nation

Ms Borne is what is known as a Ward of the Nation (Pupille de la Nation), a status given to children in France when one of their parents were injured or killed in war, during a terrorist incident, or while carrying out certain public services. 

Ms Borne’s father died in 1972 when she was 11 years old, a moment she has described as difficult. 

She is quite discreet about her private life, but in 2015 newspaper Libération reported that her father was a Jewish man of Russian origin who was a resistance fighter during World War Two and was deported from France in 1942. Although he survived this period, Ms Borne still qualified for the status after his death due to his service. 

Ms Borne graduated with a degree in engineering from the prestigious École nationale des ponts et chaussées (now called École des Ponts ParisTech) and said she was able to pursue these studies thanks to scholarships awarded due to her Ward of the Nation status. 

3. History in transport - Madame Burn Out

Outside of politics, Ms Borne has had a successful career working for some of France’s major transport companies.

This includes a spell as the head of strategy at SNCF in the early 2000s, as well as being the director of Paris public transport group RATP. 

She has been described by former colleagues at RATP as “hard working” and “demanding”. But one anonymous source quoted by Le Monde put it more bluntly, saying, “we know of more than one person who left her office in tears”. She apparently had the nickname “Burn Out”, in reference to her demanding nature. 

4. Minister of impossible reforms made possible

Elisabeth Borne joined the government in May 2017 as Minister for Transport. 

In this position, she headed up one of the biggest projects of Mr Macron’s first five-year term: reforming the SNCF. 

Under her leadership, SNCF’s monopoly on rail lines was ended, opening up the market to competing rail companies. 

Read more: Getlink plans to rival Eurostar with cross-Channel services

This reform was strongly opposed by rail union workers, who protested for 37 days in 2018. 

Florent Monteilhet, deputy secretary general of rail union Unsa Ferroviaire, described Ms Borne as being a particularly hard negotiator. 

“We arrived with our demands, she listened to them, but she had already made up her mind before we arrived,” he told Franceinfo following Ms Borne’s appointment as prime minister. 

Following her stint as transport minister she was handed the post of Minister for Ecological Transition and Solidarity, where she remained for one year. 

She was then named labour minister under Mr Castex’s government, and tasked with two jobs: pension reforms and changing the unemployment benefits and insurance scheme.

She supported raising the age of retirement to 65 in France, a proposition Mr Macron has long been trying to push through. But Ms Borne was unable to see the reform through, and the country’s retirement age remains 62. 

She was, though, successful in realising reforms to unemployment benefits. 

Read more: French unemployment benefits: What changes for job seekers today?

Following this, Christophe Castaner gave her the nickname “minister of impossible reforms made possible”, Le Figaro reported.

5. Too right for the Left and too left for the Right

Ms Borne is a self-described leftist, saying “social justice and equal opportunities are the battles of my life”. 

But not everyone agrees with this or is happy about this assessment.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the hard-left party La France Insoumise said that he would not call her left-wing.

“She is among the main figures of social abuse under the Macron regime,” he said. 

Mr Mélenchon is eyeing the role of prime minister for himself, hoping that a coalition of left-wing parties can gain enough support in the legislative elections to put pressure on Mr Macron to elect a left-wing prime minister. 

Read more: How can Mélenchon become French prime minister and how would it work?

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

Fabien Roussel, national secretary of the French Communist Party (Parti communiste français), said that with Ms Borne, Mr Macron had “found his Thatcher”. 

He criticised the reforms she has been involved in and described her as a “technocrat in the service of money”. 

And while politicians on the Left criticise her for being too right-wing, those on the Right have hit out at her for being too left-wing.

Éric Ciotti, the right-wing MP for the Alpes-Maritimes department, called her a “social technocrat”. 

He said that Mr Macron had “started on the Left and will finish on the Left”. 

“Humiliation for those who thought he was going to go down a path of right-wing policies,” he said. 

Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National said: 

“By appointing Elisabeth Borne as prime minister, Emmanuel Macron is demonstrating his inability to bring people together and his desire to pursue his policy of disregard, deconstruction of the State, social plundering, tax racket and softness.”

6. ‘Free time…that’s an interesting concept’

Ms Borne has said that her favourite holiday memory is going to Jordan, Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan and seeing the famous site Petra. 

But she is not one to take much time off work for holidays. In 2018 she was asked by Libération what she liked to do in her free time. She replied, “free time…that’s an interesting concept”. 

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