Emmanuel Macron’s shift to the right and what it means for France and beyond

The French president this week shifted course towards both youth and the right, promoting school uniforms, a drug gang crackdown and a promise to ensure that “France remains France”.

Emmanuel Macron this week mapped a path for his reshuffled government and France’s future, vowing to regulate screen time for children, introduce mandatory community service for teenagers, and have “La Marseillaise”, France’s national anthem, to be learned in primary school.

He also wants to double police presence on the streets, to combat illegal immigration, and improve parental leave to boost birth rates and “strengthen” France.

In what was widely seen as an appeal for traditionalist right-wing support, as the far right continues to grow in popularity, Mr Macron said the country had to “relearn to share values, a common culture and civility, in schools and in public”.

It comes a week after the French leader’s appointment of 34-year-old Gabriel Attal as France’s youngest prime minister, who now leads a more right-wing cabinet. Eight of the 15 government ministries are now held by politicians who came from the centre-right party Les Républicains.

Experts say Mr Attal’s media savviness and youth will help to bolster the president’s fading popularity in his second term, particularly after he forced through controversial pension reforms that led to widespread protests last year.

The fresh-faced Parisian, nicknamed “Baby Macron”, could be the secret weapon Mr Macron needs to combat the growing challenge of the far right ahead of the European elections. In the long-term, he could also be his heir-apparent as the 2027 presidential elections approach.

France’s Prime Minister, Gabriel Attal, listens to the speech of outgoing Elisabeth Borne during the handover ceremony in Paris on 9 January (Photo: Christian Liewig/Getty Images)

This appointment “cleans the slate”, says Dr David Lees, reader in French studies at Warwick University, adding that the prime minister is “fresh”, “comparatively inexperienced”, and “reflective of modern France”, referring to him being openly gay.

Mr Macron’s reshuffle comes at a time of deep divisions in his Renaissance party, with some concerned over an increasing lurch to the right. Party centrists recently fell out over an immigration bill when they were forced into concessions to the far- ight for it to pass through parliament, where they are in the minority.

The bill reduced access to welfare benefits for foreigners, toughened rules for foreign students, introduced migration quotas, and made it harder for children of non-nationals born in France to become French. The hardline measures were hailed by far-right Marine Le Pen as an “ideological victory” for her party.

Ms Le Pen’s National Rally (Rassemblement National, or RN) has gone from strength to strength since the presidential elections in 2022, and is set to gain seats in the European Parliament elections in June. But not if Mr Attal can help it.

“[Mr Attal] is one of the most popular politicians in Macron’s party, and his youth helps him to compete with the young leader of the far-right National Rally party, Jordan Bardella,” says Rainbow Murray, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.

Ms Le Pen’s protégé, Mr Bardella, is increasingly popular with the electorate.

The 28-year-old is leading the RN’s European campaign, which is topping the polls in France, with just over 28 per cent of intended votes in June’s EU elections, ahead of its closest rival, Renaissance, polling around 18 per cent.

Mr Macron is desperate to win this political fight – which may also be a foreshadowing of the future.

TOPSHOT - French President Emmanuel Macron (C), flanked by French Education and Youth Minister Gabriel Attal (C-R) and French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin (C-L), talks to the press after a visit to the Gambetta high school in Arras, northeastern France on October 13, 2023, after a teacher was killed and two other people severely wounded in a knife attack. A man of Chechen origin stabbed to death a teacher and severely wounded two other adults on Ocotber 13 at a school in northeastern France, with prosectors opening a probe into a suspected act of terror. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
Mr Macron, centre, flanked by Mr Attal, right, and interior minister Gerald Darmanin, after a visit to the Gambetta high school in Arras, north-eastern France in October following a deadly knife attack (Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP)

“The European elections are symbolically very important for Macron who has invested a lot in trying to get a more French leadership in Europe,” says Andrew Glencross, director and professor at the European School of Political and Social Sciences.

For now, it does not look likely that RN will win, with Europe Elects, which produces forecasts based on national poll averages, projecting that the far-right ID group in the EU Parliament will be the third political force, behind the EU centre right and socialists.

If RN do win it will not only be a “slap in the face” for Mr Macron’s EU leadership ambitions, the far-right party will also be in “pole position” for the presidential elections, says Professor Glencross, adding that if it is also victorious in 2027 then Mr Macron’s “whole project would have been a spectacular failure”.

The president may be positioning Mr Attal as his successor, as he will have served two full terms and won’t be allowed to stand again. The prime minister could find himself facing Mr Bardella in the race to the presidency, as both parties attempt to appeal to a younger generation of disillusioned voters.

“There needs to be someone representing the Macron legacy, who can stand up to that, and Attal potentially has got what it takes,” says Professor Glencross.

With the socialist party “demolished” in 2017’s elections and then again in 2022, Dr Lees says there isn’t much of a centre-left in France, and Mr Attal could fill that gap. However, he adds that his first big challenge will be to get the left wing of his party on side after it was “appalled” by the hardline immigration bill.

Professor Murray adds that Mr Attal’s “origins on the left of the political spectrum will help to push back against claims that Macron has capitulated to the siren calls of the far right”.

Mr Attal is the son of Yves Attal, a lawyer and film producer of Tunisian Jewish descent, and Marie de Couriss, who worked for a production company and is descended from Orthodox Christians. He grew up in Paris and obtained a masters in public affairs at the prestigious Sciences Po University.

He joined the Socialist party in 2006 and supported its presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal, in the 2007 election, which she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy. In 2016 he left the Socialists to join Mr Macron’s burgeoning En Marche party.

A skilled communicator, the prime minister has had a rapid rise through the ranks, from city councillor, party spokesperson, budget minister, government spokesperson to most recently, education minister.

Despite his leftist roots, he has turned to the centre right in the past decade – in his last post he banned Muslim abaya robes in schools, causing global uproar, and labelled students protesting changes to the education system as “selfish bobos (bourgeois Bohemians)”.

He will face an uphill battle in his new role. The last prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, struggled to pass legislation without a majority in parliament, and Mr Attal will also have to grapple with this political stalemate.

“He almost certainly won’t break the parliamentary deadlock,” says Professor Murray, but his diplomacy and likeability will come in handy to unite a divided party, and could pave the way for a leadership bid in 2027.

It remains to be seen if he will prevent the party’s increasing shift to the right.