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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
John Downing

Flashing the cash has bought France’s ‘Borne enigma’ a brief respite

French prime minister Elisabeth Borne leaves the Elysee Palace yesterday after the weekly cabinet meeting in Paris. Photo: Reuters/Benoit Tessier

France’s second-ever woman prime minister, Elisabeth Borne, has defied the pundits and survived to the summer holidays after all.

Now comes the hard part for her minority government, with big and ambitious plans for change having to be negotiated case by case with a fractious opposition in parliament.

The 61-year-old technocrat, most often linked with advising socialist politicians, now finds her fate rests in the hands of the residual right-wing Gaullist party, Les Republicains (LR), who have only 61 deputies in the French parliament.

After a very disappointing presidential election in April, LR is now looking at a long-term rebuild before the 2027 presidential vote, and so has spurned all offers of a power-sharing deal with Borne.

It has been a torrid seven weeks since she learned that the party led by her boss, President Emmanuel Macron, had lost its previously large parliamentary majority in assembly elections last month. This contrasted with a comfortable re-election win for the president on April 24, and reinforced arguments that victory was mainly down to a rejection of Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National (RN).

Even on a good day, the job of French premier is a precarious one, serving at the whim of the much more powerful president. Given the parlous position of her party and government, few fancied Borne’s survival chances and much was made of a complete lack of reference to her in the president’s grim reaction to the parliamentary election debacle. Predictions of an early exit abounded.

Last week, the editorial writer in the right-wing Le Figaro newspaper conceded that they had got their predictions wrong. But the writer also noted that Borne had come through the easy part, with a €20bn inflation-relief package making its way through parliament.

Things would be different once the government ATMs stopped dispensing free money, Le Figaro’s leader noted tartly. Despite the writer’s lack of grace, there is a serious point here.

The French prime minister only survived an early confidence motion against her this month thanks to the two right-wing parties’ tactical decision to abstain. However, piloting the inflation-relief package through was no cake-walk as the extreme left – led by the surprise package in the presidential election, Jean-Luc Melenchon – was very critical, and it ended late last week after two noisy all-night sessions of parliament.

On this one, France did what it often does best by throwing a huge amount of money at the problem. As the country faces soaring energy prices, 5.8pc inflation and warnings of social unrest, the €20bn package of stopgap measures aims to dull the economic pain.

Those measures include prolonging existing caps on gas and electricity prices and raising pensions and social benefits.

Come the end of the political holidays, the real challenges kick in. Emulating Irish political habits of old, the French parliament is not slated to return until October 3. However, all the political parties will be back at work in the last week of August with what they grandly call their “universities” – the equivalent of pre-Dáil think-ins.

September is billed as a time of conciliation between the parties, with Borne trying to find a deal on smoother parliamentary workings. That is much easier said than done, but she deserves credit for trying.

President Macron’s hefty autumn political shopping list includes a focus on tackling climate change and modernising and improving France’s health and education sectors. He still clings to the aim of a contentious reform to the pension system that would increase the retirement age from the current 62 to as much as 65. 

Making progress on any or all of those items will require tenacity, guile and luck, and help from other parties must be bought. But Elizabeth Borne can take heart from her survival so far.

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