After a swift rise up the ranks, 34-year-old Gabriel Attal took the reins as France’s new prime minister on Tuesday. With a background steeped in privilege, the first openly gay head of government is expected to bring new energy to President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which has been weakened by months of protests over pension reform, the lack of a parliamentary majority and low approval ratings.
Macron is relying on Attal to rejuvenate his government, in part, with an appeal to a younger demographic of voters who have become disillusioned, notably ahead of crucial EU parliamentary elections in June.
Gabriel Attal’s most pressing task will be to ensure that Macron’s unpopular government is in position to outperform the far-right National Rally party of Marine Le Pen, who continues to gain ground on an anti-immigration, anti-Islam platform.
As elsewhere in Europe, France‘s far right has benefitted from a global cost-of-living crisis, immigration woes and simmering resentment towards a political class – and a president – seen as out of touch. Macron’s confidence rating among the public dropped another point in January to 27 percent, according to a monthly Elabe poll for “Les Echos” business newspaper.
The same day that Attal took office, a leading Macron ally warned that Europe risks becoming “ungovernable” as gains by far-right parties in EU elections threaten to weaken the fabric of European integration.
Confirming his choice of Attal in a post on X, Macron addressed the young outgoing education minister directly, saying he knows he can count on Attal’s “energy and commitment” to bring back the spirit of “excellence and audacity” from 2017, when the president first took office.
Under the French political system, the prime minister is the head of government, in charge of implementing policy and managing government ministers.
But some heavyweight government figures aren’t happy about the dazzling rise of a man known among fellow ministers as “young Gabriel”.
His combative stance runs contrary to that of his predecessor Élisabeth Borne, 62, whose austere demeanour was respected among colleagues but made her averse to rapid-fire soundbite politics. Borne stepped down on Monday after serving less than two years in office as France’s second female prime minister.
By coming into politics at such a young age, Attal has drawn inevitable comparisons to Macron himself, who became France’s youngest-ever president at the age of 39. The youngest previous prime minister was Laurent Fabius, named head of government by François Mitterand in 1984 at age 37.
French media have suggested that Attal could succeed Macron when he reaches the end of his second term in 2027. He has already proven to be one of the most ambitious ministers in government despite his relative inexperience.
It took Attal only a little over a decade to rise from an internship in the health ministry to the second-highest office in the French republic.
Born in the southern suburb of Clamart in 1989, Attal grew up in Paris with three younger sisters. His father, Yves Attal, was a successful film producer of Tunisian-Jewish descent who passed away in 2015. His mother, Marie de Couriss, also worked in the film industry and is from an Orthodox Christian family from Odesa.
Attal attended the École alsacienne, a private school in the heart of Paris, and later graduated from the prestigious Sciences Po university. At age 17 he joined the Socialist Party and supported its then presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, in the 2007 presidential election.
Marisol Touraine, a former health minister under François Hollande and the mother of one of his classmates, offered Attal a job in 2012 that led to a full-time position in the ministry at the age of 23. While in that post, Attal also served as a local councillor in Vanves, a municipality in the southwest suburbs of Paris.
Attal was one of the first to leave the Socialist Party to join Macron’s nascent “En Marche!” movement in 2016 and was elected to the National Assembly (France’s lower house of parliament) one year later in 2017.
He became a deputy minister of education at 29, the youngest member of government ever under the post-war Fifth Republic. During the Covid-19 pandemic that took 166,176 lives in France, Attal was appointed government spokesperson by former PM Jean Castex and quickly became a household name.
While serving as a junior minister in the budget office between 2022 and 2023, Attal defended Macron’s hugely controversial pension reform bill. Then in July 2023, he was appointed education minister, one of the most high-profile and politically sensitive cabinet positions.
Tensions at French public schools have been rising in recent years, with cases of violence between students and teachers prompting intense national debate. Last month, a 12-year-old schoolgirl threatened a teacher with a kitchen knife at a school in northern France. In October, a radicalised Islamist student stabbed his former teacher to death. And in a case that shocked the nation and elicited an outpouring of grief, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old history and geography professor, was attacked and beheaded by another radicalised student in a Paris suburb in October 2020.
Having experienced bullying himself while at school, Attal promised to make tackling bullying a priority after a series of student suicides made headlines in recent years. He has joined forces on this issue with First Lady Brigitte Macron, who has a strong interest in the subject as a former teacher herself.
His most controversial move came less than two months into the job, when he banned pupils from wearing abayas, the long robes worn by some Muslim women and girls. Seen as a challenge to France’s secular values, the ban prompted a wave of fury across the country. Critics argued the loose garment did not constitute an “ostentatious” display of religion (banned in French schools since 2004) and shouldn’t be forbidden. The move earned him a popularity boost among many right-wing voters, despite Attal himself hailing from the left.
Attal is France’s first openly gay prime minister and is in a civil partnership with Stéphane Séjourné, a 38-year-old MEP and secretary general of Macron’s ruling Renaissance party. Attal was outed when an old classmate published a book in 2018 while he was serving as junior minister at the education ministry during Macron’s first mandate.
Attal is the most popular figure in government, with more than a third of poll respondents backing his possible appointment as prime minister in an Odoxa survey published last week. “Youth, public opinion and the real or potential capacity to lead the European election campaign made the difference” in the choice, a source close to the presidency told AFP.
A wider government reshuffle is expected this week as Macron looks to fine-tune his team for the last three years of his presidency.