President Emmanuel Macron has named Labour Minister Elisabeth Borne as prime minister to lead his ambitious reform plans, the first woman to head the French government in more than 30 years.
Earlier on Monday, outgoing French Prime Minister Jean Castex handed his resignation to the president, part of a widely expected reshuffle to make way for a new government in the wake of Macron’s re-election in April.
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The last woman prime minister, Edith Cresson, briefly headed the cabinet from May 1991 to April 1992 under President Francois Mitterrand.
Ending weeks of speculation, the Elysee confirmed Borne’s nomination in a statement and she then headed to the Matignon residence of the prime minister in Paris for the handover with Castex.
The departure of Castex, who was a surprise choice for the role in 2020, enables Macron to reshape the cabinet ahead of crucial parliamentary polls in June. The new government under Borne is expected to be announced in the next days.
“Most people in France will know her because she has served as a minister under Macron since he was first elected in 2017,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.
Borne has already held a number of positions as transport minister, minister for ecological transition, and lately as labour minister. Her latest post, Butler said, is something that “will be seen by the president as very useful as he looks to push through retirement reforms in his upcoming term”.
Speculation has been rife in recent weeks about Castex’s replacement, with Macron indicating he wanted a woman with left-wing and environmental credentials.
Those criteria reflect his desire to focus on schools and health in the early part of his second term, as well as the climate crisis which he has promised to prioritise.
“Macron had indicated that he wanted to appoint a woman, he also indicated that he could look to appoint someone with green credentials or left-wing credentials. That is because he is very much keeping an eye on the upcoming parliamentary elections in June, in which a new left alliance is being seen as something of a threat to Macron’s possibility of trying to form a majority in the national assembly,” Butler added.
Borne, 61, is seen as an able technocrat who can negotiate prudently with unions, as the president embarks on a new package of social reforms that notably include a rise in the retirement age which risks sparking protests.
“It was high time there was another woman,” Cresson, the former prime minister who knows Borne personally, told BFM-TV.
“She is a remarkable person, with great experience in the public and private sectors… She’s a very good choice because she’s a remarkable person, not because she’s a woman,” she added.
“France is very behind – not the French population but the political class,” added Cresson, who was the target of numerous sexist attacks during her time in office.
‘Inability to unite’
Macron, 44, registered a solid victory in April 24 presidential polls against far-right leader Marine Le Pen, winning by 59 to 41 percent.
Le Pen and defeated hard-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon are both eyeing comebacks in the parliamentary elections on June 12 and 19 that would give them the ability to thwart Macron.
Melenchon recently persuaded the Socialist, Communist and Greens parties to enter an alliance under his leadership that unites the left around a common platform for the first time in decades.
Macron’s rivals were less complimentary about Borne, whose appointment Le Pen said showed the president’s “inability to unite and his desire to pursue his policy of contempt”.
Melenchon scoffed at the idea that Borne had come from the left, describing her as “among the harshest figures of social abuse” in France’s ruing elite.
Castex had intended to resign immediately after the presidential election in line with French tradition, but was persuaded by Macron to stay on while he lined up a replacement.
The bespectacled 56-year-old from rural southwest France has a no-frills style and a strong regional accent which has endeared him to many French people.
He will mostly be remembered for his management of the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic but also windmill arm gestures and habit of forgetting where he had placed his glasses.
“For nearly two years, he worked with passion and commitment in the service of France,” said Macron in a farewell tweet to Castex, who has made clear he has no plans for higher office.