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Manuel Valls' uphill battle: Has France become ungovernable?

New French Prime Minister Manuel Valls will have to address political fragmentation and persistent economic woes.

Last updated: 08 Apr 2014 04:55
Remi Piet

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.
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France's new prime minister has been referred to as a 'left-wing Sarkozy' [AFP/Getty Images]

Last week, following big losses for the Socialist Party in municipal elections, French President Francois Hollande chose to replace his prime minister, hoping to upgrade from the tedium of Jean-Marc Ayrault with the energy and dynamism of Manuel Valls.

Valls, like Hollande a member of the Socialist Party, has been known as a political maverick since the publishing of his 2008 book entitled Pour en finir avec le vieux socialisme ("To finally be done with old socialism"). But the ambitious 51-year-old, who has been referred to as a "left-wing Sarkozy" for his uncompromising spell at the Ministry of the Interior, will face an uphill challenge in his new role.

While Ayrault came under fire during the past few months for his uncharismatic personality, his solid experience and political knowledge were strong assets - which Valls may lack. Before serving as prime minister, Ayrault had led the Socialist Party in the National Assembly for 15 years, mastering the intricacies of parliamentary democracy and showing his ability to build consensus between congressmen beyond his party, including the ecologists (EELV) and the radical party (PRG).

For the past two years, Ayrault organised the coexistence of several contradicting interests within his government. He was, for example, able to balance between the advocates of Keynesian economic policies - such as Benoit Hamon - and those in favour of austerity measures, led by Michel Sapin. In doing so, Ayrault managed to prevent large-scale labour strikes while appeasing the European Commission's calls for economic reforms in France.

French Socialist party loses support in local polls

Ayrault was constrained by the Socialist Party's very small majority in parliament, which forced him to gather clashing political beliefs under a common governmental umbrella. The government thus included the anti-nuclear party Europe Ecology - The Greens (EELV) as well as staunch supporters of nuclear energy like Arnault Montebourg. Similarly, supporters of the late European constitutional treaty in 2005 such as Pierre Moscovici sat along some of its most virulent critics, like Laurent Fabius, while socially liberal politicians like Christiane Taubira clashed regularly with the most conservative voices on the left. The perceived inaction and cacophony of the Ayrault government was a result of this jumble of diverging interests.

By removing the head of his government, Hollande may have opened a Pandora's box of political antagonisms. While Valls has regularly polled as one of the country's most popular ministers, his nomination to the position of prime minister drew the strongest criticism from those that are supposed to be his party's natural allies.

As minister of the interior, Valls had been a constant source of disputes with key figures in the ecologist and radical parties, such as fellow ministers Cecile Duflot and Christiane Taubira. His propensity to engage in conflicts is troublesome, since he will need the support of all to successfully tackle the daunting economic challenges facing France. Though Taubira reluctantly accepted to remain in the government, the ecologists immediately slammed the door on the governing coalition upon Valls' nomination - emboldened by their unexpected victory in the mayoral elections in the city of Grenoble, which offers the party a chance to showcase their political programme.

Even within his own political party, Valls has failed to draw consensus. The "New Left", a gathering of socialist parliament members who oppose austerity measures, issued an open letter criticising the choice of Valls, whom it views as too conservative, and demanding a governmental roadmap before confirming their support. Hollande himself, anxious not to give Valls too much room to breathe, ensured that some of his own supporters would maintain key positions in the new government, reducing the chance of a rival emerging ahead of the 2017 presidential elections. Valls must be wondering: With friends like these, who needs enemies?

Meanwhile, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy's party (UMP) will not miss an opportunity to undermine Valls, while the far-right National Front will try to build on its recent electoral success to spread its populist message.

All is not gloom, however, as Valls enjoys strong qualities of his own. HIs innovative mind, his capacity to swiftly implement policies and his hyperactivity are qualities that the French have been longing for since the defeat of Sarkozy. As a candidate, Hollande's slogan was "The change is now". Last week's governmental reshuffle and the choice of Valls to lead a "fighting government", in Hollande's own words, might mean his slogan is finally being acted upon.

If Valls loses the labour unions and fails to unite the left... it is very likely that his days as head of government will be anything but an enjoyable experience.

The problem is that Valls might not have the political means to do much of anything. The socialist parties have only a bare majority in parliament, with 291 deputies, just two above the majority threshold. These political mathematics dictated choosing a new governmental cabinet. Since deputy members named to governmental positions must abandon their parliamentary seat to their election running mate, all those who had run on election lists with ecologists or centrists, for example, were automatically ruled out in order to not lose additional Socialist votes in parliament. This explains in part the sharp reduction in the number of ministers in the new government from 39 to 16.

Valls' political challenges, though, are dwarfed by the economic challenges his government faces. The long-standing - yet unkept - commitment to lower unemployment will remain the main test for the new prime minister. The delay in achieving this goal has deepened the budget deficit, and the European Commission's pressure to adopt conservative measures limits the range of policy options available to the French government. Although the large-scale investments demanded by the New Left may be a logical way to jump-start the French economy, they are prohibited by the European Commission, whose austerity dogma imposes deficit cuts - potentially nipping France's timorous economic recovery in the bud.

One of the first objectives for Valls will be to implement the "Responsibility Pact" tailored by his predecessor, a commitment to reduce corporate taxes and social spending in the hope that companies will in return create more jobs in the country. Yet in the absence of any binding agreement, companies' sense of patriotism may well be outweighed by the desire to boost profits.

If unemployment remains stubbornly high and corporations do not contribute to the government's efforts, a new wave of social unrest and strikes is likely to occur, hindering any hope for a return to growth. If Valls loses the labour unions and fails to unite the left in front of a revitalised opposition after last Sunday's elections, it is very likely that his days as head of government will be anything but an enjoyable experience.

Remi Piet is Assistant Professor of Public Policy, Diplomacy and International Political Economy at Qatar University.

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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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