Élisabeth Borne: The Long-Serving Technocrat & Daughter of a Stateless Auschwitz Survivor

Illustrated by Jeannette Khouri

Élisabeth Borne, France's first female prime minister in more than 30 years, is a technocrat with a long career in a variety of government ministries and local administrations. She has negotiating experience with trade unions, which is seen as being critical as Emmanuel Macron prepares to overhaul the pension and benefits system, which could spark street protests.

The 61-year-old engineer, who previously led Paris's state transportation company, RATP, was fiercely loyal to the centrist president during his first term, serving as minister of transport, environment, and, beginning in 2020, labor.

Borne, who describes herself as a "woman of the left," has been a fixture in French power circles for decades, serving as an adviser to ministers under François Mitterrand and advising Socialist environment minister Ségolène Royal in 2014. She also worked on urban planning at Paris City Hall for left-wing mayor Bertrand Delano.

The suicide of her father in 1972 when she was 11 years old shaped French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne's childhood. Joseph Borne, whose birth name was Bornstein, was a Jewish resistance fighter of Polish origin who survived Auschwitz but never fully recovered.

Borne, the first female prefect of the western region of Poitou-Charentes, reportedly cited her own family roots as symbolizing the integration of refugees in France as she signed her first decree of French naturalization for a person who had obtained citizenship.

Ms. Borne, who was known to discreetly vape even in parliament, was frequently on television during pandemic to remind French people to work from home and defend the government's job protection scheme. She has stated, however, that she is not interested in taking center stage, and an Ifop poll conducted last month revealed that she is not a household name insofar as 45 percent of respondents said they had no idea who she was.

She is said to be meticulous with technical details. She enjoys math and finds "something quite reassuring, quite rational" in numbers. According to Agence France-Presse, she was nicknamed "Borne out" behind the scenes in the ministries where she served for the demands she made on her colleagues, a play on words with "burn out."

When President Emmanuel Macron appointed Élisabeth Borne as France's Prime Minister, few French people were aware of the 61-year-old career bureaucrat's family history.

Ms. Borne, France's first female prime minister since the 1990s, has been tight-lipped about her personal life and family history, which was shaped by the horrors of World War II.

Ms. Borne has been reticent about her background, and her office did not respond to a request for comment. However, previous interviews suggest that her father's death set her on a path of focused perseverance, instilling a strong belief in France's promise that hard work pays off and that the state plays an important role in fostering upward mobility.

In 1944, her father, a Jewish resistance fighter, was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Although he was liberated a year later, the ghosts of the past haunted him – the atrocities at Auschwitz, the loss of loved ones. When his daughter was only 11 years old, Joseph Borne committed suicide.

"It wasn't always simple. My father died when I was very young. So we ended up with my mother, who had two daughters and didn't make much money,” she stated in a 2021 interview with French channel C8.

Ms. Borne's ancestors are from Poland. Her grandfather, Zelig Bornstein, fled anti-Semitism in the 1920s for Belgium, where he worked for a diamond dealer. Joseph Bornstein was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1925. He was one of four boys, the others being Léon (1921), Isaac (1923), and Albert (1930).

Ms. Borne dedicated her appointment to the young girls of France.

“I dedicate the nomination to all the little girls in France, to tell them ‘follow your dreams’,” she said. “Nothing should stop the fight for women’s place in our society.”

She is regarded as a workaholic who rarely takes time off from her responsibilities. When she does manage to get away, she enjoys desert walks and once described Jordan's so-called Valley of the Moon as her favorite walking memory.

One of Ms. Borne’s primary responsibilities will be to carry out Mr. Macron's complex policy promises during his second five-year term in the Elysee Palace. She is also in charge of implementing the president's unpopular plans to raise the pension age from 62 to 64 or 65, which are expected to spark trade union opposition and protests. She will also be in charge of Mr. Macron's "green planning" reforms to reduce carbon emissions.

Given rising inflation and the conflict in Ukraine, the assignments is difficult.

Ms. Borne acknowledged "the challenges ahead of us are great," but said she "fully appreciates the responsibility" after being named Prime Minister.

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