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

President Macron is expected to announce his new prime minister soon. We look at who it could be and about France’s first female prime minister, appointed in 1991

Work Minister (and former Ecology and Transport Minister) Elisabeth Borne

Elisabeth Borne’s name is among those to have been suggested as a possible candidate for the prime minister role Pic: GERARD BOTTINO / Shutterstock

Discussions are mounting in France over who will be the next prime minister – to replace Jean Castex – with suggestions that it may be a woman but did you know France had a female PM in 1991?

President Emmanuel Macron is set to appoint his new prime minister as part of his new five-year term. He has said that he wants to name “someone who is committed to the social issue, the ecological issue and the productivity issue”.

He is also likely to choose someone very loyal to him, ecologically-minded, who will not mount opposition and who will not bring controversy to the office. 

The announcement is set to be made tomorrow Friday, May 13, or at the weekend.

Outgoing Prime Minister Jean Castex is set to attend a farewell dinner with his ministers, at the official residence at Matignon, tomorrow (May 12).

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

Among the names suggested for the role are: 

  • Elisabeth Borne - Minister for Labour, former Ecology Minister and Transport Minister, part of the La République En Marche! party and serving under current Prime Minister Mr Castex.

  • Valérie Rabault - President of the PS party in the Assemblée Nationale. Left-wing, young, with links to overseas territories. However, she was reportedly offered the role, and declined.

  • Véronique Bédague - Former director of cabinet of Manuel Valls, now number two at French real estate agency giant Nexity. Also reported to have been offered the role but declined.

  • Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet - Former politician in Les Républicains (right-wing) party, currently an engineer. Considered less likely.

  • Nicole Notat - Former secretary-general of the union CFDT, and now head of a sustainable development company. Considered less likely.

Not the first…

It has been suggested that a female prime minister would be a modern step forward for the president but France has already had a woman in the role, more than 30 years ago.

Édith Cresson was named prime minister in May 1991, as part of President Mitterrand’s government. She took over from Michel Rocard.

At the time, she said that her goal was to “make France a success in the Europe of 1993 and in the world of the year 2000".

In many ways, she was ahead of her time, and said that she wanted to bring together "the economy and ecology, industry, and respect for the environment", and said that "the environment must no longer remain outside the production process but be part of it".

She also enacted positive laws on living conditions, improved access for disabled people to public buildings and housing, boosted access to legal aid, and passed laws to improve water protection.

However, she was controversial and quickly became unpopular with the electorate. She also faced accusations of racism and homophobia due to comments made about Japanese trade and gay men.

Her political career ended in scandal due to corruption charges from her time as European Commissioner for Research, Science and Technology. She had been in the role for less than a year.

Women ‘systematically suspected of incompetence’

The current situation in France – in which the president appears to be struggling to find a good female option – has been described as “not very positive” by Marlène Coulomb-Gully, a researcher and professor emeritus at the University of Toulouse-Jean-Jaurès and author of the book Sexisme sur la voix publique

She told La Dépêche: “As if it were difficult to find a competent woman for this position. I would say that this [apparent difficulty] may point to a form of systemic sexism in society.”

Ms Cresson also faced intense scrutiny and sexism during her time in the role, and was often depicted in the media and by comedians as a ‘cougar’ at the feet of the president, who was shown telling her to “get back to the kitchen”.

Ms Coulomb-Gully added: “It's true that [Ms Cresson’s] experience probably doesn't exactly make women rush into the job.

“But you have to acknowledge the context of her appointment. It was the end of François Mitterrand's second term in office. It would have been a difficult time no matter who was appointed prime minister. And, despite the fact that she was perfectly capable of holding the position, she was fragile within her party where she had no current likely to support her. 

“Fortunately, 30 years on, attitudes have changed.”

Sociologist Maud Navarre also told La Dépêche: “Emmanuel Macron can't afford to make a mistake. The appointment is taking time because he does not want to repeat what happened under François Mitterrand.

“There is a lot at stake politically with the legislative elections coming up. He needs someone who is legitimate in the eyes of the majority of people and who can hold their own.”

Ms Navarre added that women are also “more likely to ask themselves if they are up to the task, something that we see as much less of a concern among their male counterparts”.

Similarly, Ms Coulomb-Gully said: “One of the difficulties women face in politics is that of their credibility since they are systematically suspected of incompetence. And if they make a blunder, which happens to everyone, it fuels this charge of incompetence. 

“Édith Cresson was not the only one in this position, Ségolène Royal was too in 2007. There is always this double standard when evaluating women, which means that we always attribute fault in a way that we wouldn’t with a man.”

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

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19 inspirational French women for International Women's Day

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