Hollande makes Valls PM after election debacle

1st April 2014, Comments 0 comments

The full line-up of France's new government is set to emerge Tuesday after President Francois Hollande reacted to an electoral rout for his Socialist Party by naming popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls as prime minister.

Valls, 51, replaces the dismissed Jean-Marc Ayrault at the helm of the new government which will not include the two Green ministers who were part of the outgoing administration.

The Green party said it was "awaiting clarification" of the direction of Valls' government before deciding on further cooperation.

Hollande on Monday confirmed Ayrault's dismissal and Valls' promotion in a televised address to the nation, a day after the Socialists lost more than 150 towns and cities to the right or far-right in municipal elections.

"In the elections, you expressed your unhappiness and your disappointment. I have heard your message, it is clear," Hollande said, admitting that voters had lost patience with high taxes and record unemployment.

He said Valls would be charged with implementing a package of pro-business policies known as the Responsibility Pact, which have been attacked by the left of his party.

But the president said this would be balanced by a new "solidarity pact" which would include steps to boost spending on education and health, and reduce income and payroll taxes - provided they can be financed by cuts elsewhere.

"It is about reforming our state... and preserving our social model. In short, we want to be both fairer and more efficient," Hollande said.

- A Royal return? -

The full line-up of the new cabinet is expected to be announced on Tuesday with interest particularly keen in whether Hollande will recall the mother of his four children, Segolene Royal, from the political wilderness.

Royal was the Socialists' presidential candidate in 2007 but her inclusion in Hollande's first cabinet was reportedly blocked because of hostility from Valerie Trierweiler, the president's then girlfriend.

That obstacle has now been removed following Hollande's separation from Trierweiler, and Royal is tipped for a return to the frontline of politics with a major portfolio covering education, sport and youth.

Waking up to headlines Monday that included "A rout", "A slap" and "A kick up the backside", Hollande was left with little option but to order a radical shake-up of a government seen as drifting hopelessly against a backdrop of economic pain for millions of French families.

On Tuesday a number of newspaper editorials suggested that Hollande may find he has promoted to the premiership a future rival for the presidency.

Both the far-right National Front (FN) and the mainstream opposition made historic gains in Sunday's nationwide elections, which were the first major electoral test since Hollande's 2012 election.

The scale of the setback was unprecedented.

Marine Le Pen's FN, skilfully rebranded as more than just an anti-immigrant party, won control of 11 towns and more than 1,400 municipal seats nationwide, easily its best ever performance at the grassroots level of French government.

But even more worrying for Hollande and Co. was the strong showing of the mainstream Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

The party of former president Nicolas Sarkozy snatched a string of major towns that were once considered bastions of the left in a performance which, if repeated in national elections, would see UMP sweep back to power with ease in 2017.

- Valls popular but divisive -

Born in Barcelona, Valls is a dapper, telegenic politician who has consistently been the most popular member of the Socialist-led government with approval ratings Hollande can only dream of.

Having acted as Hollande's communications manager in the 2012 campaign, the twice-married father of four is personally close to the president.

But he is regarded with suspicion by many on the left of his party because of his attacks on shibboleths such as the 35-hour working week and his uncompromising stance on law-and-order issues.

Appointing him as prime minister is a bold and decisive move by Hollande, some might say uncharacteristically so.

But, as with his adoption of the Responsibility Pact -- which aims to reduce company payroll taxes in the hope it will lead to them hiring more staff -- it comes with the risk of exacerbating internal party tensions.

The issue was underlined on Monday when Green ministers Cecile Duflot and Pascal Canfin announced they would not be part of the new government, describing the appointment of Valls as "not an adequate response to the problems faced by the French."

Divisions inside the Socialist Party are already acute because of misgivings on the left over Hollande's pursuit of spending cuts required to get France's budget deficit under control.

© 2014 AFP

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