It is easy to underestimate Élisabeth Borne, the newly appointed French prime minister. Labour unions did a few years ago when they faced off against her over a fraught move to open up the railways to competition.
Decrying the veteran civil servant, then transport minister, as too rigid, they demanded to speak directly to the prime minister Édouard Philippe. She acquiesced, did not blink during their month-long strike, and got the reform done anyway.
Four years on, the discreet 61-year-old is now in the top job herself, having risen from relatively humble beginnings as the daughter of a fighter in the Resistance to pilot President Emmanuel Macron’s second-term domestic agenda.
She is undoubtedly a safe choice, an experienced technocrat familiar with Macron’s way of working, who was trusted to lead three ministries during his first term. With a serious demeanour to match her impressive work ethic, according to former colleagues, Borne has kept a low public profile. She has never stood for election, although she worked as a staffer for Socialist party heavyweights, including former presidential candidates Lionel Jospin and Ségolène Royal, earlier in her career.
In one respect, however, her appointment does mark a mini-revolution. She is only the second female prime minister in France’s history and the first in over 30 years. This week Borne dedicated her appointment to “all the little girls”.
“You have to follow your dreams,” she told an audience at a women’s association near Paris on Thursday. “And never listen to those who tell you that job or that path is not for you.”
Borne spoke from experience. Her surname hides a dramatic family story. Her father was Joseph Bornstein, a Polish Jew who used Borne as his nom de guerre in the Resistance before being deported to Auschwitz. He survived but died by suicide when Elisabeth was only 11 years old.
“It was not always easy,” she said in a TV interview last year. “My mother was left with two daughters and no real income.” Borne sought solace in her studies. “I found maths reassuring and rational,” she remembered.
Financed by a state scholarship given to the descendants of fighters who served the country, Borne went to France’s top École Polytechnique engineering school, where she was one of a small minority of female students. That gave her entry to the elite and launched a career that has included a stint in the private sector at highway operator Eiffage and as director of urbanism for Paris, where she and now mayor Anne Hidalgo worked on a contested extension to the Roland-Garros tennis grounds. As head of Paris Metro group RATP, Borne had a first taste of industrial action during negotiations with unions over pay.
“She is the purest product of the French meritocracy,” a former colleague said.
Borne has a son from a first marriage that ended in divorce, but has kept her personal life largely under wraps, save for occasional details emerging in interviews, such as her fondness for reading novels and hiking through deserts. She has raised eyebrows on some occasions, including when she puffed on her electronic cigarette in the Senate where it was banned.
“She has a sharp, dry sense of humour and is not at all stuffy,” says Ross McInnes, the chair of aircraft engine maker Safran.
When Borne was negotiating furlough schemes during the pandemic, she was “tough and decisive and looked out both for companies affected by Covid and the employees”, McInnes adds.
A reputation for steeliness has also earned her criticism. Some underlings nicknamed her “Borne-out” for her penchant for occasionally exhausting her staff. However, another former colleague dismissed the tag as sexist and unmerited.
Some trade unionists say Borne is unwilling to listen, and are sceptical of pledges she and Macron have made to govern with a more conciliatory approach after a presidential election campaign that exposed deep social fractures in France.
“There’s not exactly any love lost there,” says Denis Gravouil of the leftwing CGT union, who faced Borne during negotiations over reforms to unemployment benefits.
People who have worked with Borne say she is more of a political animal than most give her credit for, though she still needs to prove she can connect with a broader public.
Praised by a peer in Macron’s government as the “minister of impossible reforms, which she then made possible”, Borne will have to handle sensitive dossiers such as pensions reform aimed at raising the retirement age from 62 to around 64. The proposed change already proved unpopular on the campaign trail, and ignited mass street protests last time Macron tried and failed to pass it.
“No one questions Borne’s professionalism, capacity for work, or expertise, but it remains to be seen whether she can become a political personality and not just a technocrat,” says Bruno Cautrès, a political scientist at Science Po university.
Borne will be running for elected office for the first time in June’s parliamentary elections, in the northern department of Calvados, where she has family roots.
Though the seat is considered a safe one, the move still carries risks, and if she loses her prime ministerial job could be in jeopardy. But standing also offers Borne another chance to prove doubters wrong.