Macron’s Millennial Minister: Winning Over the Next Generation

French President Emmanuel Macron had to shake things up. His government was unable to secure parliamentary majorities for two hot-button issues, pension reform and immigration, each a major setback. “La Macronie”, as the French have nicknamed his political brand, now finds itself at a difficult crossroads. France’s next presidential election may still be far off, but the incumbent must take steps now to protect his legacy and ensure that an increasingly popular far right does not gain power.

Key to Macron’s ability to achieve both goals is gaining the support of a large demographic, the younger generation. A government reshuffle at the beginning of the year that brought in the youngest prime minister in the history of the Fifth Republic, 34-year-old Gabriel Attal, was the president’s latest attempt to improve his image among Gen Z. It is also a gamble.

A Lost Generation

Pushing this appeal to the young offers Macron the opportunity to tap into an enormous pool of non-voters. In the second, and final, round of France’s last presidential election in April 2022, more French citizens (13.6 million) abstained than cast a ballot for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen (13.3 million). The younger generation, in this context defined as those between 18 and 35, was the largest group to ignore the election.

The dissatisfaction with the political situation persists. In polling conducted in December 2023, 54% of 18- to 24-year-olds said that they want to leave France. Primary among their concerns are the cost of living and climate change, which they feel their government is not addressing adequately.

Macron cannot run for a third consecutive term, but his party is looking to retain power beyond his mandate. The prospects for this at the moment look bleak. Enter the new prime minister, one of the younger generation’s own.

Attal as the “It” Factor

Attal was no random choice. He has long been a golden boy for the French government.

The prime minister started his career with the Socialists, working for the minister of health in 2011. Five years later, inspired by a vision of an up-and-coming Macron, Attal was one of the first to leave his party to join the newly formed En Marche!, now called Renaissance. Just two years after that, at the age of 29, he was appointed secretary of state to the minister of national education and youth, becoming the youngest member of a Fifth Republic government and laying the groundwork for his high-profile promotion to minister of national education and youth in 2023.

France’s political elite had long praised Attal for his extraordinary intellect and eloquent style of communication, and his cabinet appointment was a formal recognition of this. The position Attal was awarded is a highly visible and, therefore, influential one.

As minister, he became known to the French people. His decision to enact education reform gave him a soapbox from which he defended French values and led him to become the country’s most popular political figure. In December 2023, what would turn out to be his last month in that role before becoming prime minister, polling showed him with a 40% approval rate. He bettered the sitting president by 13 percentage points.

While some may be compelled more by actions, words are Attal’s equally strong suit. He has a reputation for holding his own in political discussions, and this was heightened during the last presidential campaign when, in a nationally televised debate, he successfully took on Jordan Bardella, then a noted spokesman for Le Pen and her party, National Rally. Attal has since been an active part of the French media landscape, affirming his standing as a strong communicator, especially in the fight against the far right.

Leveraging Attal’s visible and effective messaging is clearly a key component to the president’s broader strategy. Macron is “the only one to emphasize and fight against the risk of the National Rally among the youth. He is making every effort to demonstrate to them that his national strategy holds more promise for the future,” emphasized Luc Charles, a former regional representative for “Youth with Macron”, in an interview.

A drive for action, effective communication skills, and ballooning popularity made Attal an ideal candidate for prime minister in the recent government reshuffle.

The Minister’s Map

Three weeks into his new role, Attal delivered a 90-minute address to the National Assembly to lay out his policy roadmap. His speech dived into a number of issues that matter to the younger generation while reminding his audience he is of that generation. He reinforced his image as a man of action by focusing on short-term, attainable objectives. He also, unusually but wisely, used layman’s terms, to ensure broad understanding among the population.

With the recent decision to reform pensions unpopular, the prime minister reframed the discussion around the future of work by calling on employers and unions to cooperate with the government to create the conditions for raising wages. Attal also emphasized the evolving nature of work and stated that certain government agencies would implement a four-day workweek on a trial basis. This was a clear appeal to a younger generation looking for more flexible approaches to employment.

Turning to climate change, Attal stated it was time for a “popular” climate transition rather than a “punitive” one. He emphasized that the green transition had to work for people and not against them, and he announced the creation of a climate civil service that by 2027 will recruit 50,000 youth “ready to concretely engage on climate”.

Attal also unveiled a plan for a Universal National Service (SNU) to be put into effect by 2026. “Our civic rearmament is to strengthen the … unity of our youth. It is to allow all the young people of France to become a nation,” declared Attal in the National Assembly. This call to serve could be interpreted as a euphemism for military service, which could easily fall flat with the younger generation. At the same time, the SNU could act as a unifying force in the midst of rising extremes by providing a way for the younger generation to engage with their government.

The speech was aimed at instilling in youth a sense of individual and collective responsibility for their democracy. Still, some feel that Attal may have missed an opportunity to go further. Charles argues that “these measures aim to reinforce education in the country and provide pedagogical support to young people. [But] I do think that his speech could have addressed general rights rather than calling for duties of order.”

Attal, however, used his personal story to rally the crowd. “Being French in 2024 is being in a country that only 10 years ago was tearing itself apart on marriage rights for all and now has the first openly gay prime minister. … In all this, I see proof that our country is moving. That mentalities evolve. Proof that we have no reason to succumb to fatality,” he proclaimed. This conclusion to his speech offered a unifying message that garnered a near-unanimous standing ovation from an often-fractious legislature.

Le “Mini-Moi”

All the signs are there for Attal to secure Macron’s legacy. But the prime minister faces many hurdles to ensuring his popularity remains high, thereby positioning himself to assume the presidential mantle at the next election. To do this, the prime minister will not be able to rely solely on the coattails of his youth. The younger generation will vote for an individual whose priorities align with theirs and who addresses the issues that matter to them.

Attal has a head start in this regard. As the sitting president struggles with a decline in popularity, Attal enjoys a greater level of confidence among the public. He continues to appeal even to some far-left and far-right voters, with an approval rate of, respectively, 20% and 19%. And he finds himself in a dead heat against Bardella, now National Rally president, for being, for the younger generation, the most trusted political figure. About a third of that generation name each as the politician in whom they have the most confidence.

Attal will also have to overcome the perception that he is a Macron clone, a “mini-moi” as some of his critics disparagingly call him. He will have to assert himself as his own man without abandoning the presidential priorities by which he must abide.

This is no small challenge for him or Macron. The president is walking a fine line between a calculated risk and a political gamble with his cabinet reshuffle. If he loses the gamble, France may well be looking at a President Le Pen before the end of the decade. That would mean the emergence of a fundamentally different France—and a fundamentally different Europe.


Chloe Ladd

Manager, Transatlantic Relations
Bertelsmann Foundation