New French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal is no Stranger to Prejudice

By | Jan 29, 2024
Jewish World, Latest
Gabriel Attal standing at a podium giving a speech

On January 9, Gabriel Attal, a star who has risen rapidly in the French government over the past six years, was sworn into office as prime minister. Attal is the first openly gay French prime minister, the country’s youngest at 34 years old and its fifth of Jewish ancestry. His appointment comes as antisemitism is on the rise in France, with some statistics showing it has tripled since October 7. 

Gabriel Attal is now tasked with managing a tumultuous French government while representing President Emmanuel Macron’s minority party—named Renaissance—in parliament. He replaces Former Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who resigned after she oversaw the passage of a bill, championed by Macron, designed to strengthen the government’s ability to deport foreigners. The bill caused intense negotiations and polarization within the government, causing an increase in speculation over Borne’s ability to pass future legislation, and she resigned at Macron’s request. 

Many see Macron’s appointment of Attal—nicknamed “mini-Macron”—as an attempt to revitalize the president’s second term.

Attal, born in Northern France, was raised in his mother’s Orthodox Christian religion—she has French and Russian ancestry—but his father was of  was of Tunisian Jewish descent; Throughout Attal’s adolescence he was no stranger to homophobia; he told France TV last year that he was bullied in high school for his sexual orientation and that a blog was even created by fellow students to bully him. 

Attal told the daily French newspaper Libération that his father warned him, “Perhaps you’re Orthodox [Christian], but you’ll feel Jewish all your life, mainly because you’ll suffer antisemitism because of your name.” Attal is a typical North African Jewish name, recognizable among French citizens. And his father was right: In 2021, now a prominent politician, Attal filed a police complaint after receiving an antisemitic and homophobic letter decorated with yellow and pink Stars of David that read: “We will kill you” and “we burn the garbage.” When Attal shared images of the letter and envelope, he wrote: “Let us never take our values for granted, the fight [for human rights] must be permanent.” 

After earning a master’s degree in public affairs in 2012 from the Paris Institute of Political Studies (also known as Sciences Po), Attal was an adviser to the minister of health for five years. In 2016, Attal joined La République En Marche! (now called the Renaissance Party). In 2017, he was elected to the French National Assembly and was elevated seven months later to spokesperson of the Renaissance Party. Over the next six years he held a variety of government posts, including government spokesperson and minister of public action and accounts. In his most recent position, he became the youngest education minister in July 2023. 

Gabriel Attal walking out of a building and shaking the hands of soldiers

Gabriel Attal in 2020. (Photo credit: Ecole polytechnique / Institut Polytechnique de Paris / Jérémy Barande via Flickr)

Attal has experienced a political path strikingly similar to Macron’s: Both rose in the ranks quickly, as Macron became the youngest French president at 39. However, Macron’s popularity has been plummeting—especially after the passage of unpopular pension and immigration reforms in 2023. In contrast, Attal is viewed as one of the most popular politicians in the French government—his strong social media presence and willingness to debate any national issue appeal to a large demographic. Many see Macron’s appointment of Attal—nicknamed “mini-Macron”—as an attempt to revitalize the president’s second term, which still has three years left. Attal’s widespread popularity is already causing speculation that he’ll run to succeed Macron as president in 2027; at 38, he would surpass his predecessor as the youngest French president ever elected.

Attal attracted attention as education minister following a wave of student suicides—the last being a 15-year-old student in September 2023—when he named bullying “the absolute priority” while meeting with the deceased student’s family. He issued a new decree in August 2023, which made students who engaged in bullying more likely to be relocated to a different school than the victims. Attal also intervened with minors’ social media use on TikTok by strengthening the age verification process and implementing optional “digital curfews” that parents can utilize. 

Although many of Attal’s acts as education minister were popular, one particular action was heavily criticized. The French government follows a policy of secularism, or laïcité, which comprehensively restricts the public expression of religion. French citizens are granted the freedom of religion in their private lives, but in the public sphere, all citizens are expected to appear first and foremost as secular French citizens. Laïcité has resulted in policies meant to curtail outward expressions of religion that are strongly enforced in schools; the wearing of Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes and Islamic veils were banned in public schools in 2004. This previous ban was met with criticism as over a dozen Muslim girls were expelled for refusing to remove their veils, and schools even restricted the eating of festive Christmas cookies. Attal reinforced laïcité by banning abayas, long dresses commonly associated with Islamic women. Attal explained this decision to the French television station TF1: “When you enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of pupils by looking at them.” 

This move was met with criticism from many politicians on the left, including Member of Parliament Clementine Autain, who called Attal the “clothes police” and called his ban “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims.” A 15-year-old student in Southwest France named Yara told the Agence-France Presse news agency, “They say that the abaya is a religious dress, but it’s not at all, it’s not a religious dress, it’s a traditional dress, it’s a dress that all girls wear.” Given this argument about the garment’s versatility beyond religion, the previous education minister, Pap Ndiaye, had left it up to school administrations to decide.

Gabriel Attal sitting in an assembly and talking while holding a book called, "Ada & Zangemann"

Gabriel Attal, then education minister, presenting the book Ada & Zangemann on December 4, 2023 to the parliamentarians of the Franco-German Parliamentary in Bonn, Germany. (Photo credit: France National Assembly via Wikimedia Commons)

Controversy over French secularism has not only affected the 21st century, as former Chief Rabbi of France Joseph Sitruk was interviewed by Le Monde on the issue in 1989. “If a young Jew wants to wear a kippa to school, or a young Muslim girl wants to wear a scarf or a young Christian a cross,” Sitruk said. “I see no reason to stop them.” However, Anne-Sophie Sebban-Bécache, the director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), agrees with the latest ban. “Since other religious garments were previously banned, there is no stricter interpretation of laïcité by Attal with this decision,” she says. “There is no reason for Muslims in the country, nor any other religious group, to feel threatened by Attal.”

The surge in hate crimes in France has been building for decades. Since the Second Intifada in Israel (2000-2005), relationships between France’s approximately 500,000 Jews and six million Muslims—the largest populations for both religions in Europe—have been increasingly tenuous. According to Sebban-Bécache, antisemitism “has been high for the past twenty years with an annual average of 400 antisemitic incidents since the beginning of the 21st century, whereas there were only around 80 annual antisemitic incidents in the 1980s-1990s.” According to a 2022 survey conducted by the AJC and the French Institute of Public Opinion, 85 percent of French Jews view antisemitism as a widespread issue and 45 percent of Jewish parents ask their children not to tell others they are Jewish. 

Since Hamas attacked Israel in October and Israel began its military campaign in Gaza, French antisemitism has risen further. The French Interior Ministry reported that from October 7 to mid-November of last year, more than 1,500 antisemitic incidents were recorded—three times the number of incidents for all of 2022. Hundreds of buildings have been stenciled with blue Stars of David, creating a chilling effect reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s. French Jews are now beginning to remove mezuzahs from outside their homes.

Although reported numbers of antisemitic acts have far exceeded those of Islamophobic acts, that is partially related to a lack of reporting. The French Muslim Council vice president Abdallah Zekri said that Between October 7 and November 1, the French Muslim Council received 42 hate letters—but they didn’t report any of them to authorities. French Muslims’ distrust of law enforcement rose dramatically after the June 27, 2023, fatal police shooting of a 17-year-old Muslim male named Nahel Merzouk. His death sparked riots in the French Islamic community, drawing comparisons to the effects of George Floyd’s death in the United States. The French Interior Ministry reported that the riots caused more than 700 injuries to police officers. As Islamophobia continues, Prime Minister Attal must address not only antisemitism but Islamophobia as well.

Sebban-Bécache notes that “Every three years, the government announces an action plan to fight against antisemitism and racism.” These plans are created by the Interministerial Delegation for the Fight Against Racism and Antisemitism (DILCRAH), with consultation from the AJC, and are also intended to address Islamophobia. In January 2023, Prime Minister Borne introduced the 2023 DILCRAH strategy plan, which Attal will now take over implementing. Significant elements in the plan include yearly trips for students to sites impacted by prejudice, better training for teachers and steps to prevent perpetrators of hate crimes from fleeing abroad.  

Despite Attal’s popularity, he has been flooded with antisemitic comments on social media following his appointment three weeks ago. The Union of Jewish Students of France has called for sanctions against X (formerly Twitter) after numerous homophobic and antisemitic messages appeared on the platform. Meanwhile, the president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions Yonathan Arfi took to X to condemn comments directed at Attal. “Gabriel Attal has barely been appointed Prime Minister, and he already has to, unsurprisingly, face a wave of homophobic and antisemitic comments on social media,” Arfi said. “For the haters, he’s evidently primarily a Prime Minister defined by his sexual orientation or the origin of his name. For those with republican ideals, he is simply a Prime Minister.”

Top image: Gabriel Attal at the Discovery awards ceremony of the Angoulême International Comics Festival on Thursday January 24, 2019.

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