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Is Attal An Outlier in Europe As A Young Leader?

News Analysis


         Is Attal An Outlier As A Young Leader?


Marshal Brunt


January 15, 2024


French President Emmanuel Macron announced the appointment of the youngest and the first openly gay Prime Minister in modern French history, on Monday, 8 January, 2024.


The addition of this young leadership looks to bring a more youthful perspective to French politics. The popular new PM is a tactical move by French President Macron that looks to appeal to both younger and older voters. As 2024 is set to be the year of democracy as almost half of the world’s population heads to the polls in one form or another, including France, the importance of young leadership is crucial to engaging young voters. As politicians look to secure re-election, sourcing young perspectives and help in civil acts will be to the benefit of the values of democracy. The basis of representative political systems lies in inputs from all parts of society primarily to reflect the wants and needs of all, both fairly and accurately.


Gabriel Attal, 34, replaces Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne, 62, previously Minister for Labour, Employment, and Integration, after she resigned 2 years after taking office, during a cabinet reshuffle on January 9, 2024. The appointment, which appears to be part of an effort by President Macron to boost his party’s popularity ahead of the 2024 European elections, sees the new appointment to a position charged with overseeing domestic policy implementation and coordinating government ministers.


The young PM is known for his ability to bridge the political divide between the centre and more right-wing politicians in the French Parliament. His popularity rose after banning the Abaya for students in state schools during his tenure as education minister in August 2023, arguing that it violated France’s strict secular laws in education. Upon the announcement of the promotion to X by President Macron, who was elected in 2017, as France’s youngest leader since Napoleon, at 39, Attal wrote on his account of his appreciation, vowing to “keep control of our destiny, unleash the French potential and rearm our country”, in a post viewed more than 2.3 million times.


Attal’s appointment is widely reported as a move to revitalise Macron’s tenure, as his disapproval rate hovers around 68%, according to research by Politico, while retaining a slim lead as the country heads into the European elections later this year.


Therefore, as France welcomes this new, young, and more accepting social conformity in government, there is also a further indication of a shift towards younger leadership sweeping across Europe.


The young PM joins the likes of Finland’s former Prime Minister Sanna Marin, elected at 34 in 2019. This was alongside the former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who served two non-consecutive terms when he was 31 beginning in December 2017. Both now no longer serve in their roles as heads of government. Furthermore, while Attal is not a head of state, he does maintain significant influence as French President in both the French Parliament and the European Parliament as one of the European Union’s biggest members, comparable to a head of state.


As such, currently, there are no members of the European Council, serving as heads of European Governments or states’ which serve as part of the European Union’s executive alongside the European Commission, that are under the age of 40. The average age of the leaders is calculated to be almost 53 years old, as of January 15, 2024. The youngest leader who is presently serving is the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who is currently 44 years old.


Comparatively, the median age of national leaders is 62 around the world, according to data from the Pew Research Centre (PRS). Their findings showed that 35% of the leaders are in their 60s, 22% in their 50’s and 36% in their 40s or 70s. When compared with the data of European Council leaders, the split was more evenly distributed. Data collected in association with this article showed that approximately 40% of leaders were in their 50s, while 60% were either in their 40s or their 60s, with eight leaders in either decade. The absence of young leaders was a concern, but the leaders more generally are noticeably younger than their counterparts in China, the US, and Russia. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping is now 69, US President Biden is 80, and Russian President Putin is now 70.


The data in this article also supported findings by the PRS which found female European Council leaders were comparatively younger than their male counterparts. Of the four female European Council leaders, all are in their forties. The leaders, who included Italy’s Giorgia Meloni, 47, Latvia’s Evika Silina, 48, Denmark’s’ Mette Frederiksen, 46, and Estonia’s Kaja Kallas, 46, were much younger than the 57-year average for women global leaders, who themselves were 5 years younger than the male average, 62.


The Business World


The issue appears to be mirrored in business. An article by the World Economic Forum, emphasised the importance of nurturing younger people in business to counteract the demographic shift, mostly in the US, but also within Europe’s ageing population.


In 2021, a study of 1,000 organisations in the US found the average age of CEOs across all sectors was 59, and at the top of the leadership structure, it is 56. In the US, 10,000 baby boomers retire every day, leading to a “huge leadership development gap”.


The introduction of younger leadership is a driver of innovation and new creative ideas. The ease with which younger people navigate technology boosts productivity and a willingness to take greater risks.


The Age Debate in the United States Leadership


Across the pond, as the US heads into an election year with the Iowa caucuses kicking off today, January 15, 2024, the subject of candidates' ages remains a hot-button issue. Biden, an octogenarian, faced criticism over his perceived health and his age, and if re-elected this year will be the oldest person to re-enter the Whitehouse. If Biden wins, he will be 86 at the end of his second term.


While Trump is only three years younger, he has received far less criticism. In an NBC interview, one two-time Trump voter said that Trump “just comes off younger”. An AP-NORC poll of 1,165 adults found that 89% of voters held the view that Biden was too old to effectively serve four more years, along with 69% of Democrats, this is compared to only 29% of Republicans taking the same view for Trump. However, 82% of Democrats said that they would fundamentally still support the President during his re-election bid if he becomes the likely party nomination.


The issue of candidates' ages in American politics is well established, more so than in European politics where candidates skew slightly younger. One politician who actively engaged in addressing the issue of age in their campaign was former US President Ronald Reagan. In 1984, Reagan responded to a question about his age in the second presidential debate against Democratic candidate Walter Mondale. The President famously responded by quipping, “I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”. After this second debate, Reagan’s poll numbers increased, and ultimately carried 49 of the 50 states on election day, securing a second term victory.


Nevertheless, the demographic makeup of the US Congress is changing. The 118th Congress, from data obtained in 2023, is the most ethnically and racially diverse in history, as 28% of the House, and 12% of the Senate are minorities. Moreover, 29% of Congress is female, with 128 members out of a total of 440, based on figures collected by the Pew Research Centre. Meanwhile, Millennials, those aged between 27-42, in Congress have increased to 12% of the House, up from 1% in 2017. However, this is considerably lower than those labelled Baby Boomers, born between 1945 and 1964, who make up 45% of the House, and 66% of the Senate. This is despite only 20% of the total population in the US falling into this demographic.


The next US Presidential election is scheduled to conclude on November 5, 2024.


Photo Credit: Alain Jocard/Getty Images

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