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What to know about France's young Prime Minister Gabriel Attal, who's causing a stir

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

France has a new prime minister. At 34, Gabriel Attal is the youngest head of government in French history, and he's also the first who's openly gay. Emmanuel Macron is reshuffling his cabinet to boost his flagging presidency. By naming Attal, he hopes to inspire a younger generation. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Gabriel Attal's rise to power has been meteoric, much like that of his boss, Emmanuel Macron. Within 10 years, Attal went from an internship in the health ministry to the second-highest office in the French Republic.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: French television has been obsessively discussing his life.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: As a kid, Attal wanted to be an actor. He got into politics as a socialist before pivoting to the right and joining Macron's campaign six years ago. Attal was appointed education minister only five months ago. He immediately impressed by tackling bullying...

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PRIME MINISTER GABRIEL ATTAL: (Speaking French).

(APPLAUSE)

BEARDSLEY: ...And by banning the long Muslim robe known as the abaya in public schools. Abaya-wearing wasn't exactly France's biggest problem, and some were critical, but in a country where secularism is up there with liberte, egalite and fraternite, and two teachers have been killed by Islamist radicals, the move was popular. Attal has a sense of communication, says journalist Ludovic Vigogne, who covers politics for newspaper the Sunday Tribune.

LUDOVIC VIGOGNE: (Through interpreter) Macron wants to open a new page with Attal. He's betting on youth. He's also picking someone who is a good communicator. His last prime minister was unable to sell the government's successes to the public.

BEARDSLEY: Attal was raised Orthodox Christian, but his father, now deceased, was Jewish and told him he would always suffer antisemitism because of his Jewish last name.

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ATTAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Attal told French television he's never talked about his sexuality publicly, but has no intention of hiding it either. On the campus of Paris' prestigious Sciences Po university - Attal's alma mater - students like Alexandre Nehrbass are watching.

ALEXANDRE NEHRBASS: It's very cool that someone that young is in charge of so much. And in a lot of ways, I think it's kind of interesting to see him setting himself up as a potential successor to Macron, that type of politics.

BEARDSLEY: And the fact that he's gay...

NEHRBASS: That's still going to be something that holds you back, unfortunately. Certainly, on this campus, I've found that people are very supportive of that - that, you know, he does represent a change in that sphere.

BEARDSLEY: On his first day on the job this week, Attal met with law enforcement officers to send a clear message that he's in charge now.

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ATTAL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "There's no order in our republic without our police," he said, using the kind of tough talk usually heard from Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who was standing right beside him. It's no secret that Darmanin wanted to be Macron's prime minister. Philippe Labro is an author, filmmaker and observer of French society.

PHILIPPE LABRO: The older members of the government, who are experienced and more mature, are absolutely incensed and decided already today that they want to talk directly to Macron, the president, and won't submit themselves to the rule of the prime minister. So we might have, very soon, not a crisis, but a malaise.

BEARDSLEY: But for now, Attal is popular with the public, and Macron is hoping Attal will help build a vision for his presidency and dispel his worst nightmare - that far-right leader Marine Le Pen succeeds him when his second term ends in 2027.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHANTI SONG, "FALLING FOR YOU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.