PROFILE: Elisabeth Borne – the resilient technocrat turned French PM

France's Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, who has pushed through a controversial pensions overhaul without a parliament vote, is an experienced technocrat known for her resilience.

PROFILE: Elisabeth Borne - the resilient technocrat turned French PM
French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne attends the 4th meeting with the youth in Matignon (Rencontres de la jeunesse de Matignon). Photo: Raphael Lafargue /POOL/AFP

The 61-year-old engineer in May last year became the first woman to head a French government in three decades. When she took office, she dedicated the moment to “all the little girls”.

“Follow your dreams, nothing must slow the fight for women’s place in our society,” she said.

Borne had proven her loyalty to President Emmanuel Macron during his first term, serving as transport, environment and finally labour minister from 2020.

During Macron’s second and last stint in office, she has as premier staunchly defended his flagship pensions reform to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64.

She has championed the bill both in parliament and several television interviews, while the centrist president has made very few public comments on the topic.

On Thursday, she stoically withstood boos and jeers in parliament as she deployed a controversial executive power to force through the legislation without a vote in the hung lower house.

She invoked article 49.3 of the constitution, despite previously saying she did not want to use it and after two months of nationwide demonstrations protesting against the reform.

‘The fuse’

An adviser to the president said Borne had been willing to take the fall for the deeply unpopular move.

“I think this reform is useful, necessary. I’m the fuse. It’s up to me to bear it,” he quoted her as telling the president before she appeared in front of lawmakers.

But hours later, in an interview with the TF1 broadcaster, she evaded a question about whether she was ready to sacrifice herself for the pensions overhaul.

“This is not a personal issue,” she said. “The issue here is to ensure the future of our pensions system.”

Thursday was the eleventh time Borne has invoked article 49.3 to ram through a bill since becoming head of government.

That puts her second in the ranking of prime ministers who have most used the measure, behind Michel Rocard who from 1988 to 1991 rolled it out 28 times.

Opposition lawmakers have filed for a vote of no confidence in the government next week, which they hope will bring down Borne and repeal the pensions bill.

But many believe she will survive it thanks to backing from conservative Republican lawmakers.


“She has been weakened by the use of article 49.3,” said another adviser to the president. But “if the no-confidence motion is rejected, the reform will be adopted and she won’t have lost the battle,” they said.

A minister, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity, said Borne was not all “iron rod”. They said she had “a lot of spring” in her.

France’s first female prime minister Edith Cresson lasted under 11 months in the early 1990s, during which time she endured sexism.

Socialist senator Laurence Rossignol said Borne was different. “She is respected as a woman,” Rossignol said, but added that “as prime minister, she can be critcised”.

France’s second-ever female prime minister was born in Paris and studied at the elite Ecole Polytechnique.

Little is known about her private life, apart from that she was born to a mother with very little income and a father who took his own life when she was just 11 years old.

Her Jewish father had been deported to Auschwitz during World War II and survived the Nazi death camp, but had never fully recovered, she has said.

A lover of maths, Borne has said she finds in numbers “something quite reassuring, quite rational”.

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OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a ‘blocked’ president

The president on Wednesday tried to sell the French people on his new ideas for the next four years of his term in office, but John Lichfield sees little chance of him being able to progress his agenda, even after pension protests have subsided.

OPINION: Despite pension reform passing, Macron faces four years as a 'blocked' president

President Emmanuel Macron has finally made the case for pension reform – six days after his government used special powers to ram it through the National Assembly.

His appearance on the 1pm TV news on Wednesday was both a typical Macron performance and rather strange.

Strange, first of all, because he chose to speak to the lunchtime news bulletins, which are traditionally dominated by old ways making lace or new ways of making cheese.

Strange also because Macron made a rather good case for his pension reform – and it is largely “his” reform – after choosing to evade the debate for months.

There have been six days of sometimes violent protest since the pension bill – gradually increasing France’s official retirement age from 62 to 64 – was pushed through the Assembly without a “normal” vote. There will be a ninth day of nationwide strikes and marches on Thursday.

Macron’s 40-minute interview was not pitched at the strikers or violent protesters. Short of a capitulation, he knew that they had no interest in what he might say.

The interview was pitched at a notional silent majority of French people who detest pension reform but also now want to go on with their lives. Hence the choice of the 1pm TV news bulletins. They are watched by an elderly, provincial audience. The presenters mostly skirt controversy (and the news) to celebrate a universal and eternal France.

In other words, Macron is trying to play a long game. He is waiting for the storm to pass. He is counting on a public backlash to gather against the disruption of the strikes and the violence of a minority of protesters.

The President offered – again somewhat belatedly – a list of the more agreeable reforms which might be completed in the final four years of his mandate if normal political life resumes.

There could, he said, be new legislation to force large companies to share “exceptional profits” with their workers rather than increase their bosses’ salaries or buy back company shares.

You can listen to John Lichfield talk about the political crisis engulfing France in our new Talking France podcast on Spotify, Apple or Google podcasts. Download it HERE or listen on the link below.


He invited the unions to put the toys back into the pram and start a new “dialogue” with the government on ways of easing the final working years of people in physically demanding jobs. He did not mention that similar measures once existed but were dismantled during his first term.

His defence of the pension reform was drawn from the “blood, sweat and tears” school of political rhetoric (but accurate enough). France could not preserve its posterity and social model if it persisted in working less than its partners and competitors, he said.

What did people expect of him, he asked ? That he should “do as my predecessors did and sweep the dirt under the carpet?”

It is a pity, and a mystery, that Macron not make this case weeks ago. Instead, he chose to leave the selling of the reform to the Prime Minister, Elisabeth Borne, and her ministers, who alternated between describing it as “tough but fair” and a “left-wing” social advance.

On Borne’s future, Macron was not entirely convincing. Many people, including myself, have predicted that she will pay the traditional price of French prime ministers  and will be dumped by Macron within a month or so to try to clear the air or give a new sense of direction to the government.

Macron said, rather curtly, that Borne had his “confidence”, But he also said that he expected her to enlarge her centrist minority government by finding new parliamentary allies from the centre-right or centre-left.

She has tried that before and failed. My interpretation of Macron’s words is that, if she fails again, he will appoint a new prime minister who may be able to lasso a few of the 30 or so centre-right Les Républicains (LR) deputies who supported the reform and then helped to defeat opposition censure motions on Monday.

Les Républicains, the rump of the once-great Gaullist movement, have been shattered by the pensions reform crisis. That may eventually be good news for Macron or his would-be centrist successors. It may, however, also be good news for Marine Le Pen.

So what now?

Macron seemed to say at one point that he was anticipating another two to three weeks of demonstrations and strikes before the protests subsided. He may be right. It is worth recalling, however, that the Giles Jaune (yellow vest) rebellion lasted for six months in 2018-9 before it petered out.

The problem facing the trades unions is to keep the protests going. There will be a huge turn-out for the marches on Thursday but the bigger the numbers, the harder they will be to sustain in the days and weeks ahead.

The open-ended oil refinery and rubbish-collection strikes are beginning to cause real problems – and also real annoyance. It is that swing in the public mood that Macron is relying on.

The pension reform law is being studied by the Constitutional Council. The great and good members of the Council must pronounce within three weeks. If they reject the law (possible but unlikely), Macron will be humiliated and the protests will have no reason to continue.

If they approve the law, the protests may subside.

Either way, I see little chance of Macron getting much domestic business done in his final four years. The pension law was supposed to be the gateway to other reforms.

Despite the would-be, feel-good agenda that the President offered, despite the inevitable decline in protests, there is no obvious way forward.

Pensions may end up, not as the gateway to further reform, but as a flaming barricade.