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.
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.
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 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 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, 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.
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.”
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.
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, 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, 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 Borne since they worked together in the 1990s. “Her story can inspire others.”