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Gabriel Attal delivers his speech after the prime minister handover ceremony, Jan. 9, in Paris.Ludovic Marin/The Associated Press

France’s new Prime Minister is breathtakingly young, openly gay and considerably more popular than the man who just named him to the job. That makes Gabriel Attal both a huge asset and a potential threat to a term-limited President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks to cement his legacy.

At just 34, Mr. Attal is France’s youngest prime minister ever and arguably the most talented and ambitious French politician of his generation. By naming him to the second-most powerful job in the French government, Mr. Macron is seen to be anointing him as his heir apparent.

No sooner had Mr. Attal been appointed Prime Minister on Tuesday – replacing the technocratic Élisabeth Borne, who had held the post for less than 20 months – than opposition critics began referring to him as Macron Jr. and Mini-Macron. Stylistically, he resembles the President. He seems preternaturally self-assured.

The main risk for Mr. Macron is that Mr. Attal could upstage him. His political ascent has been almost as stunning as that of Mr. Macron, who was elected President in 2017 at just 39. Mr. Attal will be 38 when the next presidential election rolls around in 2027.

For now, Mr. Macron needs Mr. Attal to help him rescue his second term as President from the ditch. That will be a colossal task. Increasingly polarized French voters no longer buy Mr. Macron’s beyond-right-and-left brand of politics. Mr. Attal must persuade enough of them to renew their trust in the President’s Renaissance party between now and June’s European Parliament elections.

That means Mr. Attal will likely spend as much time campaigning as leading the government troops in the French National Assembly. Polls show Mr. Macron’s party trailing the far-right National Rally (RN) by around 10 percentage points, which is a huge gap in France’s fragmented party system. It would be hugely embarrassing for the stridently pro-European Renaissance to be walloped by the RN’s Euroskeptics.

The campaign for France’s 81 seats in the 720-seat EU assembly will pit Mr. Attal against an even younger Jordan Bardella. A close protégé of RN leader Marine Le Pen, the 28-year-old Mr. Bardella is almost as popular as Mr. Attal. Both men are formidable debaters and effective communicators, though Mr. Attal is more polished.

Though Mr. Attal is a former Socialist, he is seen as a bigger political threat to Ms. Le Pen’s party and the centre-right Republicans than to his former centre-left formation. That is because he has moved to the right since he was first elected to the National Assembly in 2017 at 28, after spending a few years as an aide to a Socialist cabinet minister.

Mr. Attal became a fixture in French living rooms when he served as the chief spokesperson for Mr. Macron’s government during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was appointed junior budget minister after legislative elections in 2022, before Mr. Macron catapulted him into the education portfolio last summer.

That put him at the centre of the French culture war over la laïcité, or secularism. His first move was to ban the abaya – a loose-fitting garment worn by some Muslims – from public schools, declaring: “When you enter a classroom, you should not be able to identify pupils’ religion just by looking at them.” The ban earned him kudos on the right.

As education minister, Mr. Attal talked a lot about restoring a back-to-basics curriculum and discipline in the country’s elementary and high schools. He favoured making school uniforms mandatory. But he also demonstrated a human touch by implementing “empathy lessons” in France’s écoles maternelles, and spoke poignantly of his own experiences of being bullied at school as a gay teenager. His poll numbers skyrocketed.

Mr. Attal’s popularity cannot change the fact that he inherits from Ms. Borne the nearly impossible task of steering a government with only a minority of the National Assembly’s 577 seats. Ms. Borne was forced to resort to a decree, permitted by France’s Constitution in exceptional circumstances, to push through Mr. Macron’s pension reform package last March. She angered centre-left Renaissance members by including tough RN-inspired measures in a new immigration bill that passed last month with the support of Ms. Le Pen’s party.

For that thankless task – Mr. Macron insisted on adopting both the pension reform and immigration bills into law – she was summarily relieved of her prime ministerial duties in a Monday tweet put out by the President. While she lasted almost twice as long as France’s only other female prime minister – Édith Cresson, who held the post for 10 months under president François Mitterrand – she was nevertheless thrown under the bus by her boss.

Mr. Attal will not be as dispensable. The student might even surpass the master.

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