The Harrowing Personal Story France’s Prime Minister Rarely Tells
France’s prime minister, Élisabeth Borne, sat on a recent, rainy evening in a dim room at a Red Cross shelter, listening to young women recount their personal stories of poverty, fractured homes and schooling struggles.
She smiled reassuringly and asked piercing questions. But what she did not say was that she could relate.
Ms. Borne’s youth was full of trauma. Her father survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, the notorious Nazi camp where one million Jews were killed, and died by suicide when she was 11. He left behind a bankrupted business and a shell of a wife. His daughter was taken under the wing of the state and left home at 16.
Now, she is only the second woman ever to become France’s prime minister, serving as the right hand of President Emmanuel Macron and the public face of his unpopular plan to overhaul France’s pension system, which has drawn millions of people onto the streets to protest.
Ms. Borne’s painful past and remarkable trajectory would most likely be well-trodden terrain for an American politician — the nut of stump speeches and breakfast toasts. But Ms. Borne, 61, rarely mentions her own story, even in the women’s shelter where it would clearly be appropriate.
Some of that can be attributed to the fact that she governs a country where the separation between politicians’ public personas and private lives remains strong, and that before being plucked by Mr. Macron from relative obscurity last year to become prime minister, she had built a career as a hard-working and capable technocrat.
Only after her appointment did she run in her first election — for a seat in Parliament — where voters might have investigated her personal life.
But many of the details of her own story are new even to her — emerging only now on occasion as journalists unearth them, Ms. Borne acknowledged in a recent interview in her gold-trimmed office before setting off for the official visit to the shelter. Even her friends say she rarely talks about her traumatic past, so thoroughly has she buried it.
“It’s a personal story that’s quite painful,” Ms. Borne explained.
But, she added, “It’s also a history that gives me strength — enormous strength.”
When she does raise it, it is not through the individualistic lens of perseverance through adversity, but a communal one of how she represents the French social safety net and meritocratic ideal.
“France is an extraordinary country,” she said between puffs on her ever-present electronic cigarette. “It’s something I really take to heart because while there is a lot of social determinism in French society, my experience shows you can succeed.”
Ms. Borne was the youngest of two daughters, born into a successful Parisian family.
Her father, Joseph Bornstein, was one of four brothers in a Jewish family from Belgium that fled to France in 1939. In 1943, he was arrested by the Gestapo in Grenoble, where he was part of a Jewish resistance movement. At Auschwitz, his father and younger brother were sent to the gas chambers. Joseph and his older brother were kept alive to work in a synthetic fuel factory.
The two had arrived to the platform of Paris’s Orsay train station in April 1945, when they met Ms. Borne’s mother, Marguerite Lescène. A Scout helping returning deportees, she later took the brothers to her hometown in Normandy, where her family helped nurture them back to life.
Joseph Bornstein described some of the horrors he had survived in two letters that ran in a French publication shortly after his return, including witnessing a Nazi overseer kill babies with an ax and the death march near the war’s end, when those who fell were shot and the living were loaded onto wagons.
“I was lying on the bodies of three of my friends, who had just died,” he wrote.
Afterward, someone accused him of making it up, according to Ms. Borne’s older sister, Anne-Marie Borne. “So, he shut down completely,” she said. “He didn’t talk about it anymore.”
Ms. Borne’s mother, a pharmacist from a family with a string of medical businesses, took over the family pharmaceutical lab. Her husband ran the rubber products company.
He harbored no bitterness after the war, according to Anne-Marie. He even hired a German au pair. However, he feared sleep, when his mind would return to Auschwitz. He fell into a depression — just as his business started failing.
In 1972, he threw himself from a window, transforming Ms. Borne from an easygoing child to an intense student, her sister said.
Ms. Borne said she was “plunged into an absurd world.” Math became her therapy.
“There was a reassuring, calming side to the idea that there are things you can master,” she said. “You just have to stick to it, study, and you will find a solution to the equation.”
The household went from being well off to financially shaky. Their mother fell apart. She did not land another stable job for years.
Ms. Borne, a teenager, became a “pupille de la Nation” — a status that was created during World War I for war orphans (or minors when one or both of their parents die in exceptional circumstances) and that provides financial aid and other forms of assistance.
While in high school, she left home to live with her boyfriend, who became her husband. They later had a son, but divorced.
She spent two years studying for the entrance exams for France’s grandes écoles, or great schools, then the training ground for a male elite. In 1981, she was accepted to the École Polytechnique — the country’s most prestigious engineering school — which offered a living allowance and a secure career. Ms. Borne was one of only 22 women in a class of 325.
She left with a sense of gratitude, taking up a number of government and public-sector jobs. Twice, her appointment was a first for a woman, including as the head of the Paris subway.
Ms. Borne said professional titles shielded her from sexism. Once, working at a state company building low-income housing, a businessman interviewing for a contract told her that he did not hire women because they got pregnant.
“Some women experience much more difficult things in their careers than I did because I was a Polytechnique graduate, a civil engineer, a prefect,” Ms. Borne said. “So people sometimes forget that you are a woman.”
In 2017, Mr. Macron chose Ms. Borne to be part of his cabinet, and she took charge of three successive ministries during his first five-year term.
France’s first female prime minister, Édith Cresson, faced virulent sexism when she held the job in the early 1990s. A politician once compared her to King Louis XV’s mistress, and lawmakers sometimes hollered for female ministers to strip, she said in an interview.
Thirty years later, Ms. Borne has faced subtle layers of sexism. After her nomination, French newspapers noted she rarely smiled, ate like a bird and worked her staff to the point they were “Borne out.”
“If a man is authoritarian and harsh, we say, ‘He’s a great leader,’” said Pascale Sourisse, Ms. Borne’s classmate at Polytechnique, now the director of international development at Thales, a large French company.
The first time many people heard Ms. Borne publicly allude briefly to her family history was during her debut speech in Parliament as prime minister. Even then, it was only one sentence.
“I didn’t know her story. No one knew it,” said Anne-Marie Idrac, Ms. Borne’s former boss at the national railway company.
In the 2000s, Ms. Borne was the head of strategy under Ms. Idrac, when the company was facing lawsuits over its role in transporting Jews during World War II. She never revealed that her father, grandfather and uncles had been forced onto those trains, Ms. Idrac said.
“In all meetings about it, she didn’t say anything,” she said.
As prime minister, Ms. Borne has vowed to combat antisemitism with the same urgency as her predecessors. But, when introducing the government’s anti-discrimination plan last week, she made no mention of her family history. Mixing politics and her personal life, she said in the interview, felt inappropriate.
Still, after The Jerusalem Post named her the third most influential Jew in the world, Ms. Borne, who is not religious, said she was both amused and proud. While still reluctant to publicly discuss her past, she is at least getting used to being asked about it.
“It’s such an exemplary story,” said Florence Parly, a former defense minister who has known Ms. Borne since they worked together in the 1990s. “Her story can inspire others.”