Wednesday, April 9, 2014



The French municipal elections of 23 and 30 March ended in a resounding defeat for President Hollande's Socialist Party, caused by record abstention (38.5%) and a loss of confidence in Hollande's ability to bring down unemployment and restart the stalled economy.

A jubilant center-right UMP party took 150 cities from the socialists, and 11 cities voted for the dreaded far-right Front National party of Marine Le Pen. Newspapers called it a slap in the face for François Hollande, whose leadership and economic policies were thus rejected by a large majority of voters, including a good number of people in his own party. This protest vote called for a change at the highest levels. 

Hollande responded by firing his lackluster Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and replacing him with the more popular and dynamic Manuel Valls, his former Minister of the Interior. Spanish-born Valls, 51, became a French citizen at 19 and has long belonged to the liberal wing of the Socialist Party. He is sometimes referred to as a Blairite, or as a socialist Sarkozy.

Manuel Valls addressing Parliament

Valls immediately set to forming a new, leaner, cabinet of only 16 ministers that contained a number of surprises:

Ségolène Royal - Welcome back
1) Ségolène Royal - former partner of François Hollande and mother of his four children whom he had left for Valérie Trierweiler - was named Minister of the Environment, Renewable Development and Energy, the third-largest ministry in the government. It was a triumphant comeback for Ms. Royal after she had lost her reelection to Parliament in 2012. Her return to government was made possible by the departure in January of Ms. Trierweiler from Hollande's personal life and from the Elysée Palace.

2) Christiane Taubira, who often quarreled with Manuel Valls, was retained as Minister of Justice.
When he was Interior Minister ("top cop" of France) Valls had vehemently opposed the Taubira Law (drop set prison terms of less than five years in favor of probation; liberate all prisoners who are serving short sentences and have fulfilled three-quarters of those sentences; and teach repeat offenders working skills before their release from prison). Last August the Valls-Taubira fight became so vocal that President Hollande had to intervene (he sided with Taubira).
The re-nomination of Taubira by newly appointed Prime Minister Valls looks like a nod to President Hollande.

3)  The Ministry of Finance was split in two branches - Finance and Economy - run by trusted old hand Michel Sapin as Finance Minister and controversial Arnaud Montebourg as Minister of the Economy and Industry. 
Note: Montebourg, sometimes seen as a loose cannon, may be remembered for his anti-Germany and anti-globalization rants. In 2011 he published a booklet entitled: Votez Pour la Démondialisation!  Beloved by the trade unions, his protectionist ideas and far-left thinking make him an odd bedfellow for Manuel Valls. Was Montebourg imposed as a counter-weight to Valls's liberal leaning?

Six of the Hollande Ministers retained their old jobs and two more were reshuffled into new ministerial positions. Among the latter were former Budget Minister Bernard Cazeneuve who replaced Valls as Minister of the Interior, and Minister of Agriculture Stéphane Le Fol who retained his Ministry but was given the added job of Government Spokesman (formerly held by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem).

Finally, François Rebsamen, socialist mayor of Dijon, was named Minister of Labor. He and Ségolène Royal are the only two ministers who were not part of the earlier Hollande Cabinet.

All told, this new Cabinet is tighter but not markedly different from Hollande's earlier government and cannot be seen as the "break with the past" that many had hoped for. Moreover, Manuel Valls has orders not to deviate from the path to recovery that the president has set, which so far has produced no results but which Hollande still believes will pay off in the long run.

All eyes are now on Valls who, in the mold of young Mario Renzi in Italy, is ambitious and energetic. Will he be able to reassure the disenchanted left while giving full support to the president's difficult task of cutting public spending by €50 billion by 2017? In announcing Valls's appointment President Hollande said Valls would be heading a "fighting government" (un gouvernement de combat). The fight will be tough but take-charge Valls may be better equipped to get results than his mild predecessor was. Let's hope that the difference between Valls and Ayrault will be more than style over substance.

In his 45-minute inaugural speech to the National Assembly on April 8th Valls spoke passionately of his immigrant's dream to join this great country, France, with its admirable values. He called on the Right to cooperate and work together in solving the country's problems. Addressing today's most pressing issue, the economy, he outlined the tax cuts and stimulus program of the president's Responsibility Pact and announced savings of €39 billion to be gotten from cuts in Social Security, Healthcare and Education, which is €11 billion short of the €50 billion in cutbacks imposed by the EU Commission to bring the country's deficit down to 3% of GDP - a near impossibility unless France is granted another extension, its third, which is by no means certain. He also announced a plan to reduce France's administrative regions by half by 2017.

Following his speech Valls did obtain the needed Vote of Confidence (306 vs. 239), but he knows that nervous trade unions and an opportunistic opposition will be looking over his shoulder.

Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris

Amid the gloom of the socialists' defeat in the local elections there was one bright spot. In Paris, socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo beat her UMP opponent Nathalie Kosziusko-Morizet to become the first female mayor of Paris. She had been First Deputy Mayor of Paris under Mayor Bertrand Delanoë (2001-2014). Spanish-born Hidalgo (54) came to France at age 2 and settled in Lyons with her immigrant parents. She became a member of the Socialist party in 1994 and was elected Councillor of the 15th arrondissement of Paris in 2001.

With the return of Ségolène Royal to national politics, the election of Anne Hidalgo as Mayor of Paris, and Valls's nomination of eight women to his 16-member Cabinet, women in France seem to have broken through the glass ceiling - at least in the world of politics.

No comments:

Post a Comment