Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s visit to the Caen market attracted the interest of people of all ages. Photo by Kami Rice, Anthrow Circus Editor-in-Chief.
ARTICLE BY KAMI L. RICE
“C’est lui?” exclaimed a dark-haired boy of roughly nine years old from the market stall sidelines as a commotion passed in front of him. Fuzzy microphones on long, handheld booms and news cameras poked above the crowd as it tightened to fit the narrowing space between vendors of vegetables and antiques and records and roast chicken.
The man beside him smiled toward the boy as he affirmed that it was indeed the new French prime minister, Gabriel Attal, come to the Sunday market in Caen after President Emmanuel Macron appointed him last Tuesday, Jan. 9, to replace Elisabeth Borne as head of the French government. In the scant days since his appointment, Attal has been busy selecting ministers to form his government and taking his first trips outside the capital as he begins his new role of determining and implementing the nation’s policies. Scant too is Attal’s age—the 34-year-old is France’s youngest-ever prime minister.
Beneath seagulls wheeling in a gray sky, local government representatives welcomed Attal’s mini-motorcade at the edge of Caen’s marina. Once official greetings were complete, national and local journalists encircled him and his towering, floppy white-haired host Fabrice Le Vigoureux, one of the Calvados department’s National Assembly deputies. The cluster approached the closest booth of the expansive, weekly open-air market whose stalls stretch west from the marina’s yachts toward Saint Peter’s Church, which dates to the 13th century, and the Chateau de Caen, a fort constructed by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.
Attal’s visit was announced only a couple of hours before his 11:30 a.m. arrival. According to French news outlets, he chose Caen as his fifth official stop outside of Paris because he was invited by Calvados deputies, all of whom but one belong to the coalition of political parties who vote with Macron’s center-right party. This is, thus, overall friendly terrain for an administration looking to regain popularity following less-than-popular legislative moves of late, including a change in national retirement age and an immigration law accused of catering too much to the demands of the far right.
Local officials lined up outside the Mercure Hotel to welcome Prime Minister Gabriel Attal to Caen. The delegation included Stéphane Bredin, prefect of the Calvados department; Joël Bruneau, mayor of Caen; Fabrice Le Vigoureux, National Assembly deputy for Calvados 1st district; Freddy Sertin, deputy for Calvados 6th district; Bertrand Bouyx, deputy for Calvados 5th district; Christophe Blanchet, deputy for Calvados 4th district; and Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, deputy to the European Parliament. Photo by Kami Rice.
French media also quoted Attal as saying he came to Caen because of the Normandy region’s importance as it prepares for marking the 80th anniversary this summer of Allied troops’ storming of its Atlantic shores in a wave that ultimately turned the tide of World War II.
A boisterous older man running a grilled chicken truck, who joked with Attal as he passed and offered to sell his Portuguese-style chicken to everyone in the crowd, told Anthrow Circus later that he thinks the prime minister also chose Caen because this is the territory of his predecessor, Borne, who is a deputy for the southeastern portion of the department. Attal should establish good will and connection here as he takes over her job.
Throughout the hour-long “wander” through one of the market’s several alleys—if one could call a tight crowd trying not to stumble over each other something so gentle as a wander—the mood remained surprisingly relaxed as concerned citizens with issues to raise worked through the cluster toward Attal or called out for his attention from the fringes. People spoke to him about the state of education, concerns over the health system and overrun hospitals, the plight of the middle class and accompanying challenges for people at the end of their careers, and the needs of the agriculture sector.
After Gabriel Attal spoke with the bread vendor, he took up conversation with the next set of people eager to speak with him. The bread seller was immediately back at work cutting portions of bread for customers who had had to wait for the prime minister’s entourage to move on from the front of the booth. Photo by Kami Rice.
Surrounded by members of the press and interested observers, Prime Minister Gabriel Attal crouched down to speak with this young man who was seated in a wheelchair. They spoke quietly, and as Attal stood back up, the woman put her hand on her chest in a sign of respect and thanks. Photo by Heather M. Surls, Anthrow Circus Assistant Editor.
With a little help from others to edge toward Attal, Maithe LeDoux gained an audience. Voice shaking a little as she spilled out the details, she described a situation at a local school where her granddaughter and friends needed to finish their Spanish course. The course had been discontinued because too few students had chosen it, but the former teacher had agreed to finish the course for these students already studying the language. The school had agreed. But in more than two months nothing had advanced, with the high school students increasingly stressed over how they would finish the course before the end of the school year and the all-important high school exit exam.
Attal asked a few clarifying questions and quickly seemed confident of what was needed to solve the stalemate, noting that due to being minister of education from last July until becoming prime minister, he knows all the regional education directors. He waved over a local representative, whom he tasked with recording and acting on LeDoux’s information.
LeDoux later told Anthrow Circus she’d had no idea Attal would be present when she arrived at the market that morning. But when she saw the police and discovered the reason for their presence, she felt she needed to take the opportunity to address the prime minister because she thought he could do something about it.
Market baskets in hand, a small group of pro-immigrant protesters began chanting rhyming slogans from the fringes of the crowd, referencing a recently passed immigration law that is under review by a council determining whether the law is constitutional: “We’re all immigrant children.” “[Interior Minister] Darmanin, we don’t want your shitty law.” “Solidarity with immigrants from all around the world.” Photo by Heather M. Surls, Anthrow Circus Assistant Editor.
Security became more visible as the outdoor corridor narrowed, the crowd grew, and a dozen or so pro-immigrant protesters drew nearer. The protesters chanted slogans such as “It’s not the immigrants who are costing us money, it’s the government ministers and stockholders.”
Yet the ambiance never turned hostile or tense. Even interlocutors who interrogated Attal on more tenuous topics—such as the administration’s stance regarding the suffering of children in Gaza—remained respectful. While his tone was firmer with them than with the schoolkids he crouched down to speak with, Attal looked each person square in the eyes, and all exchanges carried the air of people of good will, even if not everyone was satisfied with his answers. Many passersby, bundled in scarves and hats against the sub-freezing temperatures, simply seemed delighted at their good luck in unexpectedly seeing the new prime minister, and a tacit order reigned as the crowd gave access to those who wanted to speak with him.
All through the market Prime Minister Gabriel Attal posed for selfies with those who requested them, including this stylish older woman who didn’t know how to work her phone to take the selfie. Perhaps the easiest problem he addressed on Sunday was opening the selfie camera for her, but once in position, he laughed when he explained that the camera was now on a 10-second timer delay. Photos by Kami Rice.
Around an hour after his market walk began, Attal and his entourage retreated to a café for a warm-up and for conversations between a few pre-selected constituents and the prime minister. Security services kept anyone without credentials away from the entrance. By then the market’s fishmongers were rinsing ice from their stands and vegetable displays were well picked over.
Near the front of the market, at a couscous stand run by a Tunisian woman and her French husband, the Frenchman said the prime minister stopped to speak to the vendors at the cheese and bread booths that preceded his, but passed by him and his wife.
That’s how it always is, he said, noting that while market visits by prime ministers are rare, mayors visit more regularly. They never stop either. He gestured to the tiny blue, white, and red French flag hanging from the stall’s awning and the red and white Tunisian flag on the counter, noting it’s the second one that keeps them away.
He’s not bothered, though, that these officials prefer to speak to vendors who seem more local and more French. Everyone is welcome to his and his wife’s little international corner, he said, as he handed over flavorful merguez couscous and cinnamon-tinted North African meatball tajine seasoned with the spices from the table behind their counter—savory ingredients that had not been knocked over when cameras and microphones and French citizens jostled by with their dashing, young, but already graying, prime minister.
France’s 24-hour news stations broadcast live feed from the market tour while commentators dissected Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s comments in real time. Photo by Kami Rice.
Kami Rice, Anthrow Circus’s editor, plies her insatiable curiosity from a base in northern France and from perches in coffeehouses, cafés, and friends' homes the world over. As a freelance journalist, she has reported for the Washington Post, The Telegraph, The Tennessean, Nashville Arts Magazine, and Christianity Today, among many others. Her more creative work has appeared in Another Chicago Magazine, The High Calling, and Washington Institute's Missio. Her French to English translation has been published by Éditions Beaux-Arts de Paris. She also edits manuscripts and articles for a variety of clients and loves learning about the lives of regular, real people wherever she finds herself.