French prime minister seeks to step out from Macron's shadow in the upcoming early election

LE PECQ, France (AP) — Thrust into an early election sprung by his boss, France’s prime minister hopes to emerge from the campaign not only still holding the job that President Emmanuel Macron gave him less than six months ago but also as more of his own person.

The 35-year-old Gabriel Attal became France's youngest-ever prime minister when Macron appointed him in January.

But he now risks being dethroned by the even younger 28-year-old Jordan Bardella. The president of the far-right National Rally hopes the legislative election will mark a watershed in his party's gradual but unrelenting decades-long climb from the fringes of French politics to now being on the threshold of power.

For Attal, the crisis represented by the possibility that France could elect its first far-right government since its Nazi occupation in World War II could also be something of an opportunity.

If Attal can confound pollsters' expectations and somehow pull off a majority for Macron's centrist bloc in the June 30 and July 7 two-round election, not only will he earn brownie points from the French president, but he'll also be in a stronger position to argue that he has the country's ear and support.

“Of course there will be a before and an after,” Attal said Thursday. “On Jan. 9th, the president nominated me. On June 30th, I'd like the French to choose me.”

An arresting black-and-white photo taken by Macron's official photographer on June 9 — the day that the president shocked France and many of his associates by dissolving parliament's lower house, the National Assembly — fed an impression that Attal was less than happy with the president's decision to send voters back to the polls after a battering by the far right in the European Parliament election.

The photo showed a sour-looking Attal sitting opposite Macron in a meeting that fateful evening, his mouth turned down and his arms crossed.

But he is being nothing but a good soldier for Macron in the ensuing campaign, which is already redrawing the political landscape in France even before ballots are cast. Squeezed on both sides by Bardella's National Rally and, on the left, by a new coalition of parties that hastily banded together against the far-right's surge, Attal is working day and night to shore up the middle ground of French politics where Macron's salvation lies.

It was there that Macron first found the votes to become president in 2017, shattering France's traditional left-right political divide, and again for his reelection in 2022. But Macron's dissolution gamble has galvanized his previously divided opponents, particularly on the left, where a broad spectrum of far- to center-left parties have papered over their differences and united behind a shared platform.

The redrawn map of three main blocs — far-right, middle and left to far-left — make the election outcome uncertain, which is spooking markets and investors. But it also allows Macron's candidates — championed by Attal — to hope that they may yet still cling to their seats despite the president's deep unpopularity with many voters, particularly those on the far right and left.

Attal himself is seeking reelection in the Hauts-de-Seine suburbs of western Paris, where he was born on March 16, 1989. But he is spending much of his time on the airwaves defending Macron's record and bashing his opponents, and out on the road, lending his star power — Attal has 337,000 Instagram followers and another quarter-million on X — to other candidates in the Macron camp.

At his news conference on Thursday morning before zooming off for campaign stops in Normandy and the Loire region, Attal again hammered what has become a central argument in the Macron camp's campaign: That spending pledges and other promises from the far right and the left-wing coalition to help voters struggling to make ends meet would endanger jobs, drain family incomes and add to France's debts, already criticized by European Union watchdogs.

Attal urged voters to choose carefully, seeking to steer them away from what he and Macron describe as the right and left extremes and to put their opinions of Macron — whose term lasts to 2027 — to one side.

“Perhaps never will a vote be so consequential,” the prime minister said. “This election is to choose your government, to choose your prime minister.”