Borne Again

17 May 2022

I’ve been on an island with poor Internet since last Friday, so I’ve had to catch up on all the hot takes about Emmanuel Macron’s nomination of Elisabeth Borne to be première ministre (as the Elysée officially designates the post, rejecting Eric Zemmour’s insistence that the name of the office demands a masculine gender to preserve the “beauty” of the French language). There has been much murmuring about a “signal” sent to the left-wing electorate (since Borne worked for Jospin and served as dircab under Ségolène Royal when she was minister of the environment). She has also been head of the RATP and SNCF and is a graduate of Polytechnique. Thus she ticks all the boxes Macron identified as desiderata: productive, écologique, sociale, … et femme.

Of course this meant nothing to the self-styled leader of the opposition, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who boldly declared himself to be Mme Borne’s “successor” avant la lettre, since he expects to be “elected” prime minister by a tidal wave of popular support. He accused Borne of “maltraitance” of the working class owing to her work on unemployment insurance reform, ending the SNCF monopoly of the French rail system, and presumed support for increasing the retirement age.

Detractors see Borne as a colorless “techno,” distinguished mainly by her impeccable resumé and ability to function on two hours’ sleep. A prime minister of the sort that Macron likes, therefore, unlikely to throw any political shade his way but quite adept at following orders and thus prolonging the “Jupiterian” presidency that he promised to end by introducing a “new method” of government.

Rumor has it that Borne only narrowly edged out Catherine Vautrin, a more political, less technocratic figure who currently serves as president of the Reims conglomerate and was previously close to Sarkozy. Her outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage would have sent a very different message about Macron’s intentions, as he was apparently warned in the strongest of terms by a number of people in his entourage. I agree: her nomination would have marked a disastrous beginning to his second term, as ill-advised as the abrogation of the wealth tax at the beginning of his first.

Now we wait to see what “signals” will be sent by the remaining cabinet picks. Signals in politics often turn out to be mere noise, but it’s also true that government is frequently a matter of personnel choices. The naming of Philippe, Le Maire, Darmanin, and Blanquer to key posts in the first term tilted the balance of a government that was supposed to be ni droite ni gauche. The selection of Elisabeth Borne will by no means tilt the balance in the other direction, but that of Vautrin would have broken the mechanism altogether.

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