The man with a mission to save Macron’s movement

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At a recent campaign stop a supporter pulled aside Gabriel Attal and praised the French premier’s sangfroid in fighting an impossible electoral battle triggered by his own boss, Emmanuel Macron.

“I’d like to shake your hand,” the elderly man told Attal in Perreux-sur-Marne, a suburb to the east of Paris. “But you need to tell the president to shut up . . . he’s the one who has put us in this mess.”

The moment captured the difficulties faced both by Attal and the roughly 250 outgoing lawmakers from Macron’s centrist alliance who have just over two weeks to avert a ballot box catastrophe for the ruling party.

Even previously loyal MPs from Macron’s own Renaissance party have privately expressed dismay, incomprehension, and anger about the president’s shock decision to dissolve the National Assembly after a heavy loss to the far right in European elections. 

Left with barely enough time to print campaign materials, some will not put Macron’s face on their posters or flyers over fears that it would lose them votes.

Instead some are opting to appear next to the 35-year old Attal, a Macron protégé often dubbed “baby Macron” who was appointed to the premiership just six months ago, even though he has little chance of keeping his job after the second-round vote on July 7.

A gifted communicator who was considered one of the brightest stars in Macron’s party, Attal offered up a muted defence of Macron to the voter in Perreux-sur-Marne: “This is a legislative election, we’re voting for the prime minister.”

On the surface, Attal is playing the loyal soldier by leading the campaign that pollsters predict Macron’s alliance will lose, most likely leading to a hung parliament or potentially even to a far-right government. Yet the premier is also subtly distancing himself from Macron as he fights for his own political survival and a possible bid for the French presidency in 2027. 

Prime Minister Attal was not included in the small circle of people President Macron consulted before dissolving the National Assembly, according to people familiar with the matter © Soazig de La Moissonnière

The prime minister was not included in the small circle of people Macron consulted before dissolving the National Assembly, according to people familiar with the matter. Attal found out about the decision only shortly before it was announced. He pleaded with Macron to fire him instead — scapegoating the prime minister is a classic way for French presidents to defuse crises — but he was rebuffed.

In a meeting at the Elysée palace on Sunday, Attal sat stony-faced, arms folded, across from the president, while several other ministers looked on with grave expressions. 

“It was one man’s decision,” finance minister Bruno Le Maire told Le Monde newspaper, adding that he was not consulted either.

Days later, Attal threw himself into the battle of trying to prevent an electoral wipeout, while also holding on to his MP seat in the Hauts-de-Seine district south-west of Paris.

At a dinner with Macron, several prominent allies urged the president to remain on the sidelines and let Attal be the face of the campaign.

The prime minister also sought to rally his fellow centrist MPs in a Tuesday meeting that one participant described as a “funeral”. Attal encouraged everyone to set aside their emotions and focus on the campaign.

Gabriel Attal talks with people during a trip in support of Benjamin Haddad, candidate for his re-election in the 14th constituency of Paris, © Stephanie Lecocq/Reuters

One former MP who has long been close to Macron said others “were really upset and in total incomprehension” about the president’s decision.

“We’re going to lose a lot of MPs, but we’re trying to get to the least bad result possible,” the person added. 

Macron’s centrist alliance is projected to come in third place, according to one recent Cluster17 poll. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN), whose rise Macron sought to curb by calling this election, is expected to return the most MPs, followed by a new leftwing group, the Nouveau Front Populaire (NFP).

Macron’s seats in the National Assembly could drop from around 250 to below 100, according to the poll. 

Karl Olive, an outgoing Renaissance MP in the Yvelines district who said he supported the president’s call for snap elections, said Attal was a key player: “Gabriel does the job. He is the one who embodies the ability to speak to both the left and the right — he can calm things down.”

Attal is a pure product of the Macron era: he started as an aide for a socialist official before being elected as one of the crop of deputies that swept in with Macron in his first term in 2017. He had a meteoric rise as junior budget minister, a brief but high-profile stint as education minister, and then became France’s youngest ever prime minister in January. 

Attal’s depended on that force of personality as he pitched on Monday to local councillors and mayors of Saint-Jean-les-Deux-Jumeaux, a rural hamlet of 1200 where the RN is ascendant. 

“What is at stake in these elections is not just politics but the Republic itself,” Attal told the audience.

Gabriel Attal has encouraged his fellow centrist MPs to set aside their emotions and focus on the campaign © Olympia De Maismont/AFP/Getty Images

Launching into a fluid attack on extremism, Attal warned that both the left and the far-right would destroy the economic progress made under Macron. “We can sound the alarm by explaining that if one of these two projects was implemented, it would result in a lasting damage to the French economy,” he said. 

A challenge faced by Attal and Macron’s allies has been that the president never built up a traditional party machine because he saw it as an unnecessary relic of a political world he wanted to disrupt. First called En Marche in 2017 and rebranded as Renaissance in 2022, the president’s party has a shallow local presence and has not been elected to many mayorships or regional government positions. 

“Renaissance is an empty shell,” said Vincent Martigny, a political-science professor at the University of Nice. “Macron’s antagonism to traditional parties is now turning against him because his rivals on the left and right still have more of a political machine to rely on.”

About a dozen of Macron’s ministers have launched themselves into the campaign. In the town of Eaubonne, culture minister Rachida Dati, who defected to Macron from the conservative Les Republicains only six months ago, posed for selfies at a Sunday market.

“Dati is a war machine,” marvelled an aide as she shook hands with supporters while officials huddled in the rain, joking: “Perhaps everyone is tired of being dissolved.”

Asked how she rated their chances, Dati said: “I don’t pay attention to polls . . . The French want to have their say. The president gave it to them.”

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