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Artillery Row

Who will be Macron’s dauphin?

And what does it mean to be the heir to Macronism anyway

The 2024 electoral agenda promises to be hectic, with presidential and legislative elections to be held in Taiwan, India, the EU, the US and the UK to name a few. The white heat of these political events finds its source months, if not years, prior to it. And while the focus will be on very different stages, the beginnings of the 2027 French elections are already playing out under our nose.

President Macron’s recent reshuffling of his cabinet puts under the spotlights Gabriel Attal, who has been chosen as Prime Minister. At 34 years old, Attal is the youngest person ever to occupy France’s second-highest office. Until now, the record was held by Laurent Fabius, former chief of staff to President Mitterand in 1979, who became Prime Minister in 1984 at the age of 37. To put things in perspective, one must travel back to 1819 in order to find the youngest person at the equivalent level (Gino Raymond).

Evidently, the position has important implications for the career trajectory of its holders. Georges Pompidou and Jacques Chirac, who both occupied the post before eventually being elected Presidents, are clear examples of this. Many others went on to lead their respective political parties and to shape policies at the highest level. Laurent Fabius presided over the Socialist group before eventually becoming the President of the National Assembly (1988-1992) and, since 8 March 2016, has been President of the Constitutional Council.

The parallel between Fabius and Attal is worth closer inspection. Both were selected by the political leading figures of their time, who tried to foster competition across their heirs and test their loyalty. Mitterand opposed Fabius to Pierre Bérégovoy and Jacques Delors. Seniority tensions were high, especially since Delors had chaperoned the young political climber when the latter worked as a non-political civil servant in the Finance Ministry. Likewise, Macron toyed with his options. Gérald Darmanin, expert sycophant, confessed that Attal is “the most Macronist among us”.

Of course, the choice of the Prime Minister is never neutral. It is a well-known fact that the job traditionally represents a sort of disposable fuse, which is used to protect the President from serious political damage.

But in the case of Attal, Macron’s decision addresses a key topic — that of his ideological succession. A difficult question not only because the times are, generally speaking, uncertain, but also because what Macron stands for exactly is never entirely clear.

Years before the President leaves the office, it is no coincidence that the choice has fallen on a young replica of himself. Attal’s dynamism is based on his good looks, perfected by his obsession for marketing his image, in order to control — or perhaps hide — his ideological sliminess.

In 2023, his rapid passage (5 months in total) through the Education Ministry emphasised Attal’s taste for shiny announcements devoid of substance. In today’s cycle of news, this is a goldmine for journalists on the hunt for headlines. Remarkably, few of them have held Attal to account on his political promises. Or about the evolution of his political trajectory, since it is under François Hollande’s government that Gabriel Attal started, learning from Marisol Touraine then at the Health Ministry.

Looking again at Fabius’ leadership, a similar pattern applies. Described by some as a hot-headed politician when entrusted with some power, Fabius went back and forth between pleas for radical socialist principles, and toeing the line, then set up by Delors in favour of an austerity program that sent unemployment soaring. The transformations led by Fabius over the Socialist Party bear witness to his ideological fluidities à la Blair.

Instead of delineating with more consistency the contours of his political beliefs, Attal now tirelessly sells his persona to the media. A series of interviews on various TV shows includes confidences about his father’s sudden death in 2015 due to cancer, his homosexuality and the bullying that he endured. His political activism is often self-centred. No one else, among his peers in government, enjoys the same level of prominence, especially for segments that record high levels of audiences. When Attal risks arguing about the Gilets Jaunes or discuss the Benalla affaire while being the government spokesperson, the gains are ultimately personal. Likewise, his duels with Jordan Bardella, the President of the Rassemblement National Party, offer him a unique platform from which he can secure his place within the public opinion.

Indeed, Gabriel Attal has recently overthrown Édouard Philippe in the polls, the first of Macron’s Prime Ministers, who served between 2017 and 2020. For a while, Philippe was the favourite political personality among French people. The leader of “Horizon”, created in 2021, Édouard Philippe was the most trusted to change the state of the country, in front of Marine Le Pen, Macron himself, and any other serious contender from the traditional right (such as Bruno Le Maire, Xavier Bertrand, and Valérie Pécresse).

Macron’s decision ought to be read as a long-term strategy. The young Attal already caught the attention of many other political opponents, including Nicolas Sarkozy who received him in September 2023 for lunch. Instead of a mere competition among members of the current government, the President could be stirring things at a deeper ideological level. Who, between Attal and Philippe, the current and former Prime Ministers, will be the “most Macronist” and, therefore, worthy of being crowned Dauphin?

Both have Macronist airs, but defining what that means exactly is a challenge

Both have Macronist airs, but defining what that means exactly is a challenge. For some, the President’s doctrine amounts to a form of techno-populism. Others emphasise his vision for a different European model, defining new geopolitical lines with regards to its allies, such as the US, and its challengers, such as Turkey or China. With strong (but often quiet) pushes toward progressive social reforms (exemplified by his current mission to deliver legislation in favour of assisted dying) and economic decisions deemed aggressive by many, Macron likes to shuffle his cards. In turns, he presents himself as a “socialist”, a social conservative, and a liberal — often depending on who’s the political opponent he seeks to overthrow. Thus, by definition, Macron’s political compass is kaleidoscopic, and intentionally so.

In his 6’37’’ long clip for “Horizons”, Édouard Philippe gestures more than he speaks, laundering a sort of degraded version of Macron’s politics while appealing to smooth Republican symbols. The intellectual slump didn’t prevent 29 deputies bearing his colours to be elected at the National Assembly. Philippe’s refusal to align himself entirely with Macron’s party could be a reason for the latter to provoke a bit of competition. Or, perhaps, Macron is testing himself, his ideas and his legacy. Whoever will be designated as his heir will have the risky task to explain what it is to be “Macronist” in the first place.

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