François Hollande, the French socialist president, nominated a new prime minister on March 31 — the day after his party lost 155 cities and scores of lesser municipalities in the local elections. Constitutional issues were not at stake: local elections are local and do not interfere, theoretically, with national politics. However, the debacle confirmed what polls had repeatedly foretold for months: both the president and his administration were sinking to an unprecedented popularity low, down to 25% or less in overall approval according to the latest surveys.
In 2012, the motto for Hollande’s successful presidential campaign had been “Time for change!” (Le changement, c’est maintenant”). Ironically, he must now undergo a complete change of course in order to survive until the 2017 election.
It was certainly the right move to pick Manuel Valls, hitherto the Interior minister, as the new premier. Jean-Marc Ayrault, the outgoing prime minister, was said to be “a poor, bland, copy and paste of Hollande.”
Valls, in terms of image and profile, is everything Hollande is not. He has a square, skinny, Napoleonic, face with piercing eyes, which is the opposite of Hollande’s roundish and bespectacled face. While Hollande was born in Northern France in a conservative upper middle class family, Valls is the son of a Spanish painter who settled in France in the late 1940s, and he was not naturalized until the age of 20. Hollande, a graduate of the elite ENA (National School for Administration), is a high-ranking member of France’s statist elite. Valls just attended college, and then served for years as a socialist party underling and petty official.
Hollande has always had rather “complicated” relationships with women, as they say on Facebook (last January, he dropped almost overnight Valerie Trierweiller, his semi-official companion for seven years, presumably for Julie Gayet, a much younger mistress). Valls looks more like a classic male: half Iberian macho, half Latin lover. Hollande has always been eager to promote compromise and consensus among socialists and leftwing allies, while Valls sticks proudly to his own views. Last but not least, Valls has been very popular as Interior minister over the past two years — not just the most popular socialist minister, but the most popular French political leader as well, whereas Hollande’s popularity has steadily declined from his first day in office.
Beyond the many outward differences, the two men may share some essential ideas, and thus may work rather well together, at least for a while. They are both “social-democrats.” In the French socialist parlance, this means that they they belong to the party’s right wing. Valls has always been outspoken in this respect; Hollande, who time and again masqueraded as a more midstream socialist, straightened his line a few months ago. Both men are “Westernists”: they believe in France’s world role, but also in NATO and the American alliance (with some réservations — especially since the Syrian imbroglio last summer — about the Obama administration).
Both have expressed strong sympathy for the Jewish community in France and for Israel — almost an oddity by current French political class standards. Another bond between Hollande and Valls is that the latter acted decisively over the past two years, against several mass demonstrations that might have toppled most other governments. There were nationwide protests against the legalization of same sex mariage and a state of near-insurgency in Britanny against an “ecologic tax” on truckers. (These are serious matters in France. Even a national icon like Charles de Gaulle was almost ousted by street unrest during the so-called “Students May Revolution” in 1968).
But if Valls convincingly embodies a new course, one may be more skeptical about the cabinet, which was set up a few days later.
The good news is that EELV — the French Green party, which is part of Hollande’s broader Left coalition and which held several portfolios in the Ayrault cabinet — declined to work with Valls, and that the Left Front — a shaky alliance of neocommunists and ex-socialist radicals — stayed outside, too.
The bad news is that the socialist party itself, the coalitions largest element and now the cabinet’s only component (along with PRG, a minuscule left-of-center party), is hardly prepared for the kind of drastic rethinking and overhaul undertaken by Tony Blair’s New Labour in Britain in the late 1990s, or Gerhard Schröder’s SPD in Germany in the early 2000s. Some eighty socialist members of the National Assembly even went so far as to openly express their dislike of “rightwinger Valls” as premier. Accordingly, the best Valls could do was to keep those members of the Ayrault cabinet that were not likely to spell trouble, and to bring in new members with whom he had some personal ties, even if they were far more leftwing than him. Not an easy thing either, especially when one takes into account Byzantine requirements like gender parity, on which Hollande still insisted: as many women as men for ministers.
In fact, most members of Valls cabinet — fourteen out of sixteen — are former members of Ayrault’s cabinet. Some of them are close enough to the new Hollande/Valls line. This is the case of Laurent Fabius, the Foreign minister; Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Defense minister; Bernard Cazeneuve, promoted from the Budget to the Interior; and Michel Sapin, the former Labor minister who is now in charge of Finance and Budget. Some others, like Aurélie Filipetti, the Culture minister, or Benoit Hamon, the new Education minister, are much more to the left — but they are personally loyal to the president or have developed ties with Valls.
Moroccan-born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, the former cabinet’s spokesperson, will be in charge of Women’s Rights, Youth, Sports, and Urban policies. She is an icon of “diversity” (multiethnicity and multiculturalism), and quite popular in her own right. To keep Christianne Taubira, the Guyanese garde des sceaux (attorney general), is more risky: she was seen hitherto as a proponent of judicial laxity, and thus as Valls archenemy. On the other hand, she is also a “diversity” symbol. An intriguing move is the promotion of Arnaud Montebourg, the ambitious leader of the party’s left, from the Industry ministry to a much larger Economy ministry.
The two newcomers are politically close to Hollande and Valls. One is Ségolène Royal, who was Hollande’s unmarried companion from 1978 to 2007, bore him four children, and nevertheless led a parallel political career culminating in a charismatic if unlucky presidential candidacy in 2007 (she garnered 47% of the vote but lost to Nicolas Sarkozy). She will now lead a big Ministry of Ecology and Energy. The other one, François Rebsamen, will take charge of the Ministry of Labor and Employment. A sober and adroit politician, he was the mayor of Dijon, the capital of Burgundy, since 2001. He is close to both Hollande and Royal, whose presidential campaign he managed seven years ago.
Still, to quote the Gospel, “no man putteth new wine into old bottles,” and one wonders how Valls can salvage the Hollande administration or even safeguard his own reputation under such conditions. A lot will depend on how he, and Hollande, understand the local elections disaster.
Everybody agrees that the main story about the local elections was a mass desertion on the Left: nearly 40% of the voters abstained, and most of them were socialist or leftwing. It helped the Right to win even such die hard leftwing strongholds as many of the Paris suburbs, known for decades as the “Red Belt,” or Limoges, which had been ruled by socialists or communists since 1912. Moreover, it provided the Far Right (Marine Le Pen’s National Front) with proportionally larger local votes, and thus either a few victories (it carried ten cities all over France) or leverage on Right-Left duels, usually to the benefit of the Left (notably in Strasbourg or Rebsamen’s Dijon).
Everybody agrees that the main reason for abstention was the economy: unemployment is rising, taxes are soaring, and purchasing power is sinking. But what is to be done? The Right says that there is no alternative but a harsh diet: lower wages or longer working hours (the present legal working time in France is 35 hours per week) or both, the sacking of many civil servants, and the termination of many welfare programs. The Left says that, on the contrary, one has to restore hope among the working class and the middle class, lower taxes and raise wages, and keep the welfare state alive and well.
Valls, and to a lesser degree Hollande, may think that the Right is correct in theory. In practical terms, they may not be so sure: even the Right, under Sarkozy, was too shy to implement its platform.
And Le Pen’s Far Right is as statist or socialist when it comes to economic matters as the socialist party or the Far Left.
Valls probably thinks he can solve many contradictions by a show of authority or charisma. “Where there is a will, there is a way.” Indeed, a hidden pattern in his cabinet is that most ministers are strong personalities, or at least that they care more about themselves than about dogmas or principles. Take Royal, for instance. She made clear that, as an Ecology minister, she will not be bound by the Greens agenda: “The ecologic tax on trucksters is a stupid tax, period,” she said. One may surmise that Hamon and even Montebourg may indulge in similar approaches.
Valls first steps have been cogent enough. On April 8, he outlined his program to the National Assembly. He promised to cut all kinds of taxes and all kinds of expenses. He remarked that the nation should not be “divided” any longer. Goodbye, then, to further reforms endangering the traditional family values. He expressed the view that many of the twenty-seven French regions should merge: a way to save money and bring more efficiency to local government. And finally, as expected, he put himself forward: France was a great country, he said, and he was proud as a foreign-born citizen to have joined it.
A subdued Left majority passed a vote of approval; even the Greens obliged.