French President Emmanuel Macron named new foreign and defense ministers on Friday as part of a government re-shuffle intended to create fresh momentum ahead of parliamentary elections next month.
France’s ambassador to London, Catherine Colonna, was picked as foreign minister, making her only the second woman to hold the prestigious job.
Sebastien Lecornu, former minister for overseas territories, was promoted to the defense ministry, Macron’s chief of staff Alexis Kohler announced at the presidential palace.
Macron decided to shuffle the portfolios despite the conflict in Ukraine, Europe’s biggest since World War II.
“It’s a government that is equal (in terms of gender) and balanced in terms of people who were already ministers and new figures,” Prime Minister Elizabeth Borne told reporters.
Macron needs a parliamentary majority in polls next month in order to push through his domestic reform agenda which includes welfare and pension changes, as well as tax cuts.
The biggest surprise came in the education ministry where renowned left-wing academic Pap Ndiaye, an expert on colonialism and race relations, will take over from right-winger Jean-Michel Blanquer.
Ndiaye first gained national prominence with his 2008 work “The Black Condition, an essay on a French minority” and is an outspoken critic of racism and discrimination.
In his first public comments, he acknowledged that he was “perhaps a symbol, one of meritocracy, but also perhaps of diversity.”
“I don’t take pride in it, but rather a sense of the duty and responsibilities which are now mine,” he said.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen called his elevation “the last step in the deconstruction of our country, its values and its future.”
On Monday, Macron named Borne to the post of prime minister, the first time a woman has held France’s top cabinet job in more than 30 years and only the second time in history.
Opposition figures had accused the president of deliberately delaying naming a new cabinet, almost four weeks since his reelection April 24, when he defeated far-right leader Le Pen.
The issue has been the subject of feverish media speculation in recent days, overshadowing the parliamentary campaign and drowning out opposition parties.
Macron’s centrist LREM party, allied with the centrist MoDem and center-right Horizons among others, is expected to face its biggest challenge from a rejuvenated left-wing next month.
Head of the France Unbowed party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, is eyeing a comeback in the parliamentary elections June 12 and 19 after finishing third in the presidential polls.
Melenchon persuaded the Socialist, Communist and Green parties to enter an alliance under his leadership that unites the left around a common platform for the first time in decades.
He said the new government represented “neither audacity nor renewal. All dull and gray.”
“In one month, everything will change,” he added.
As with previous Macron governments, the cabinet is evenly split between men and women, but has a new emphasis on environmental protection which has been named as a policy priority.
The cabinet features separate ministers for “ecological transition” as well “energy transition,” with campaign groups such as Greenpeace urging Macron to match his rhetoric with actions.
The president has also continued his habit of attracting talent from opposition parties, with senior Republicans party MP Damien Abad named as minister for solidarity, autonomy and handicapped people.
Abad, 42, is the son of a miner from Nimes in southern France and became the first handicapped MP to be elected in 2012.
He has arthrogryposis, a rare condition that affects the joints.
Elsewhere in the government, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire and hard-line Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin both remain in their positions.
New foreign minister Colonna is a veteran ambassador, former government spokeswoman under late president Jacques Chirac and one-time minister of European affairs.
She has served as a French envoy in London at a particularly rocky time for Franco-British relations due to tensions over Brexit, fishing rights and immigration.
In a highly unusual step, she was summoned by the British government in October 2021 as Paris and London clashed over fishing rights in the English Channel.
“I wanted to thank everyone who understood we are friends of this country and will keep working for a better future,” she wrote on Twitter in a valedictory message Friday.
She will replace veteran Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, while Lecornu takes over defense from Florence Parly.
France has promised to step up its weapons supplies to Ukraine which include Milan anti-tank missiles as well as Caesar howitzers.