France gets a new prime minister

As foreshadowed yesterday, the Socialist Party’s poor performance in France’s municipal elections has cost prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault his job. But those who were hoping that François Hollande would take this as a cue to shift his government to the left will be feeling very disappointed.

The new prime minister is to be Catalan-born interior minister Manuel Valls, popularly regarded as the leader of the Socialist Party’s social democratic or pro-market wing. As Le Monde‘s headline asks, “Why has Hollande chosen a prime minister who is the incarnation of the right of the Socialist Party at the risk of alienating part of his majority?”

Valls, aged 51, was one of the contenders for the Socialist presidential nomination in the October 2011 primary, although he placed only fifth with 5.6%. He then became Hollande’s chief spokesperson during the 2012 campaign, being rewarded with the interior ministry. His performance in the job has won him considerable public support, partly on the basis of populist “law and order” measures – inviting comparisons with another tough former interior minister, the UMP’s Nicolas Sarkozy, who went on to become president.

Perhaps most shockingly for his party comrades, Valls is deeply sceptical about the 35-hour week, a totemic Socialist issue. He was also one of the strongest partisans of Hollande’s former partner, Ségolène Royal, when she lost a bitter and closely-fought contest to succeed Hollande for the party’s secretaryship in 2008.

In announcing the appointment, Hollande promised that the new government would focus on getting the economy moving, with lower taxes and more incentives for business. The two Greens ministers, however, announced that they would not serve under Valls, and accused Hollande of “not having heard the message of the voters.”

As Le Figaro says, Hollande has played his “va-tout” – his “all in”, or betting the house. For an administration often remarked on for dullness, it’s a move to embrace dynamism, with all of the risks that entails: not least, the risk of splitting the governing majority and alienating the left-wing votes that Hollande needs in parliament.

It’s an interesting window on how Hollande sees not just France’s problems – which as usual seem intractable without ever reaching the stage of desperate – but his own role. Two and a half years ago, when the Socialist primary was in progress, I put it like this:

When a party is reforming (or trying to), it’s often a matter of perspective whether someone is part of the solution or part of the problem. Ten years ago, Hollande was a young turk leading the drive for modernisation; now he is the establishment personified.

Last night’s appointment shows that Hollande has not lost all of his youthful radicalism. However deep the problems it faces, the solution for the Socialist Party is not to retreat to its hidebound, dirigiste past. And so, with a new young turk at the helm, it plows on into an uncertain future.


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