By Anne RENAUT, Anna SMOLCHENKO and Stuart WILLIAMS
French leader Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday picked Gabriel Attal as prime minister in a bid to give new momentum to his presidency, with the 34-year-old becoming France's youngest and first openly gay head of government.
Following days of speculation, Macron late Monday accepted the resignation of Elisabeth Borne, 62, who stepped down along with the rest of the government after serving less than two years in office.
The overhaul comes ahead of the Olympic Games in Paris and European parliament elections this summer, where Macron's centrist forces risk defeat at the hands of the far-right under Marine Le Pen.
A wider cabinet reshuffle is expected this week as Macron seeks to sharpen his team for the final three years of his presidency.
"The president of the republic appointed Mr Gabriel Attal prime minister, and tasked him with forming a government," a presidential statement said.
Attal is set to bring a major change of style to the office of the prime minister following Borne, only the second woman to lead the French government.
Her austere and no-nonsense demeanour won respect from colleagues but not necessarily popularity from the public, whereas Attal is the most popular figure in government after his stint at the politically crucial education ministry.
Confirming the move on X, the president said he wanted the new premier to bring back the spirit of bold change from when Macron first won office on wave of hope for radical reform in 2017.
"I know I can count on your energy and your commitment," said Macron, adding that the new premier would act in line with the spirit of "excellence and audacity" of 2017.
- 'Fragile as ever' -
The appointment of Attal had been expected after Borne's resignation on Monday, although the absence of a swift announcement fuelled talk that heavy-weight government figures were unhappy over the meteoric promotion of a man known sometimes by fellow ministers as "young Gabriel".
Sources close to those said to be behind the tensions, including Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire, vehemently denied this.
Borne's resignation letter to Macron, a copy of which was seen by AFP, hinted that she would have preferred to stay in her job.
"While I must present the resignation of my government, I wanted to tell you how passionate I was about this mission," she wrote.
Commentators see the reshuffle as essential to relaunch Macron's centrist presidency for its last three years and prevent him becoming a "lame duck" leader after a series of crises.
Since he defeated the far right to win a second term in 2022, Macron has faced protests over unpopular pension reforms, the loss of his overall majority in parliamentary elections and controversy over immigration legislation.
With Macron unable to run again in 2027 presidential elections, ministers have publicly aired concerns that Le Pen has her best chance to win the presidency.
Attal will go toe-to-toe ahead of the European elections with another rising star of French politics, the even younger Jordan Bardella, just 28, who is now party leader of the far-right RN.
The conservative daily Le Figaro said Borne was leaving a political situation "that remains as fragile as ever.
"Changing a face at the top doesn't change the overall picture," the newspaper said, adding Borne's successor was facing "an overwhelming pile of political emergencies" including the task to unite a fragmented nation.
- 'Offensive strategy' -
Under the French system, the president sets general policies and the prime minister is responsible for day-to-day government management, meaning the latter often pays the price when an administration runs into turbulence.
Constitutional expert Benjamin Morel told AFP that Attal's appointment signals a "very offensive strategy with a view to the European elections" in June.
But political scientist Bruno Cautres said he would "not solve the problem of the majority, nor the main problem which is where the mandate (of Macron) is heading".
Other key posts are also subject to uncertainty, in particular that of Darmanin, 41, a right-winger said to covet the post of foreign minister held by Catherine Colonna.
The new head of government will be the fourth prime minister since 2017 under Macron, who is accused by critics of micro-managing and centralising power in the Elysee.
© Agence France-Presse