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France: The new PM's 'fighting government'

Holding together a factious left is as monumental a task as resolving France's economic woes.

Last updated: 02 Apr 2014 07:23
Agnes Poirier

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'
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President Francois Hollande sacked his prime minister immediately after election results were announced [Getty Images]

French President Francois Hollande, the most unpopular president of France's Fifth Republic (which started in 1958), must have seen it coming. However, with the results of the elections announced, the scale of the disaster astounded everyone. The French left, composed of Hollande's Socialist Party, and according to local alliances, of the Greens and the extreme-left Front de Gauche, lost 175 municipalities.

Polling institutes had put the figure of towns swinging to the opposition at 100. Le Figaro, France's right-wing daily newspaper, is said to have hesitated on how best to name the electoral drubbing on its front page. Would it be "tsunami" or "crashing wave"? They went, tellingly, for tsunami.

A week earlier, the results of the first round of the French local elections had set the tone. Two trends were particularly revealing and worrying for Hollande. First, it was the historically low turn-out of around 60 percent. France, whose citizens are often involved and passionate about politics, traditionally enjoys higher participation rates than its European counterparts - especially for the presidential elections.

A low turn-out is always a sign of the demoralisation of voters from the left. Despite desperate calls from the Socialist Party following the first round, urging voters to cast their ballots in the second round, they didn't bulge.

In the second round of the 2007 presidential elections which saw the victory of Nicolas Sarkozy, 87 percent of French citizens cast their votes. This time, only 62 percent deigned to go to the polling stations. And a low turn-out is always a sign of the demoralisation of voters from the left. Despite desperate calls from the Socialist Party following the first round, urging voters to cast their ballots in the second round, they didn't bulge.

a low turn-out is always a sign of the demoralisation of voters from the left. Despite desperate calls from the Socialist Party following the first round, urging voters to cast their ballots in the second round, they didn't bulge.

The other remarkable trend which arose at the first round and was confirmed on March 30, was the rise of Marine Le Pen's extreme-right party Front National which managed to scoop 11 towns. Among them, important cities such as Beziers and Frejus, and even one arrondissement (administrative district) Marseilles. Le Pen may only have one MP at the National Assembly, she can, however, now rely on a string of local mayors.

Rise of the right

It is a remarkable achievement for the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen who succeeded her father at the helm of the party in 2010. She managed in just four years to get rid of the most unsavoury characters in her party and told her party members that she would not stand for racist, anti-Semitic and Catholic fundamentalist verbal abuse - at least uttered in public. In the media, she poses as the anti-establishment candidate and keeps attacking right and left mainstream parties for failing France and the French.

She has also managed to polish the image of the National Front and often borrows her vocabulary from the left. In other words, she has successfully managed to blur her extreme-right image, and to appear more acceptable to an ever larger fringe of the French electorate. She has reaped what she has sown: The National Front today, is France's third largest party.

When the electoral disaster was clear to all, Hollande knew he had to act swiftly. He sacked his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and the government's 38 ministers. Quickly afterwards, the name of the new prime minister, Manuel Valls, was unofficially released, and later confirmed at an eight-minute televised address by the president. Some action, at last, commented many political analysts.

Hollande's tone was combative.

"It is clear. There has not been enough change," he said. "There are still too many delays. Not enough employment. Not enough social justice. Inefficiency in the public administration."

He spoke of Valls' new government as a "fighting government".

In Valls, Hollande has appointed, as his new PM, not only one of the most popular politicians in France, but also a personality often scorned by the French left for not being socialist enough. Indeed, former Interior Minister Valls is seen as a hardliner, a firm-handed liberal, a socialist Sarkozy, or a Blairite figure. In other words, a reformer, not an orthodox French-style socialist. As interior minister, he mounted police operations to expel Roma immigrants and crack down on illegal immigrants. The Greens have already said they would not accept ministerial positions in a Manuel Valls government.

Denis MacShane, Tony Blair's former EU minister and a friend of Valls, commented:

"[Valls] is the closest France has to a Tony Blair - a reformist, pro-growth social democrat not afraid to take on vested interests and challenge conventional statist thinking in France. He will come under pressure from the left but they have no answer to France's problems. It's do or die for Hollande but the departure of the Greens opens the way to France rethinking its energy policy and dropping some of the internal protectionism that slowed down growth. Valls is a tough, smart operator. If the French Socialist government can be saved, he's the man to do it."

Unlike his predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault, Valls has charisma. A father of four and married to his second wife, violinist Anne Gravouin, the 52-year-old Manuel Carlos Valls was born to a Spanish father and a Swiss mother. He obtained French nationality at the age of 20, and went on to do his military service. Fluent in four languages, Spanish, Italian, French and English, Valls will have to implement Hollande's pro-market policies, introduced a few months ago as a response to France's economic crisis and rising unemployment.

The majority of the French people may welcome Valls' appointment, however, he'll also be judged on his ability to hold together a very factious left. It's as monumental a task as resolving France's economic woes.

Agnes Poirier is the UK editor for the French political weekly MARIANNE, and a political commentator for the British, American, Canadian, French and Italian press, and a regular contributor to the BBC, Sky News, and Al Jazeera. She is the author of 'Touche, A French woman's take on the English'.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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