CRUSHED by defeat at French local elections, President François Hollande reacted this evening with uncharacteristic boldness, firing his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and replacing him with Manuel Valls, the ambitious, centre-left interior minister. Mr Hollande’s rout at the polls on March 30th, when his Socialist Party lost over 150 big towns to the right and far right, made it impossible even for the cautious president to continue with the old regime. His choice of Mr Valls is as risky as it is potentially encouraging for economic reform in France.
The decision to appoint the 51-year-old Mr Valls came at the end of a long day of consultations and rumours in Paris. One report suggested that Mr Hollande had first turned to a trusted old friend, Jean-Yves Le Drian, the defence minister, but that he politely declined. Nothing of the sort for Mr Valls, who keenly wanted the job and made no secret of his ambitions. He now becomes the 21st prime minister under the French Fifth Republic.
The logic behind Mr Valls’s appointment is two-fold. First, Mr Hollande wants to press ahead with a more business-friendly economic policy, which he announced on January 14th, in order to revive France’s weak economy. This includes €10 billion ($14 billion) of new payroll-tax cuts for firms, as part of a “responsibility pact” designed to encourage job creation. But, with France under surveillance from the European Commission, it also involves finding a hefty €50 billion of budget savings during 2015-2017. This will require tough, unpopular decisions and so far Mr Hollande has taken none.
Mr Valls has no experience of running economic policy. He is a party hack and former mayor of the multicultural banlieue of Evry, best known for taking a tough line on security and immigration. Yet he has carved out a reputation as a “social-liberal”, which in the French Socialist lexicon means from the centre-left. A former supporter of Michel Rocard, a moderate Socialist former prime minister during the Mitterrand years, Mr Valls once called on the party to ditch the word “socialist” in order to modernise. He was the only candidate during the party’s 2011 presidential primary to be straight about how weak the French public finances were and how difficult it would be to fix them, arguing that “we need to tell the French that the [budgetary] effort…will be as great as that achieved after Liberation.” So he has some credibility for having called the public-finance crisis early, and has more of a mandate for taking tough spending decisions than anybody else.
Second, Mr Hollande is hoping that Mr Valls will bring more professionalism and decisiveness to government. For one thing, he was the most popular member of the outgoing government, and has favourable poll ratings even among voters on the right. For another, he has a keen eye for image and a way with words, as a former spin doctor for Lionel Jospin when he was Socialist prime minister, and the head of communication during Mr Hollande’s presidential campaign. This might just help him keep a better grip on government communication and explain what Mr Hollande is up to with economic policy—something that the president has so far masterfully failed to do.
Since taking power in 2012, Mr Hollande has been in charge of a zig-zagging policy that has been mostly about raising taxes. This evening, in a televised address, he promised to start lowering them, on households and employees as well as firms. The uncertainty, however, has been dizzying for voters, and has paralysed investment. It is now Mr Valls’s responsibility to make sense of all of this.
Nobody doubts the new prime minister’s energy and grit. Mr Valls in many ways resembles another ambitious former interior minister who also set his sights high, Nicolas Sarkozy, the former centre-right president. Like Mr Sarkozy, the Spanish-born Mr Valls, whose father was a Catalan painter, has something of the outsider’s drive and dynamism. Also like Mr Sarkozy, he is not a pure product of the French elite, having never attended the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, which has groomed so many French prime ministers and presidents, among them Mr Hollande.
Yet it will take more than mere high energy and self-belief for Mr Valls to get the job done. He now needs to form a government, yet he is deeply distrusted by a big chunk of the left wing of the party: he got a miserable 6% of the vote at the Socialist primary, has no parliamentary base and is not known as a team player. The Greens, which sat as junior partners in Mr Ayrault’s government, are wary too. Cécile Duflot, the outgoing Green housing minister, has already warned Mr Valls that she would not accept a post in his government. The party’s leftists blame Mr Hollande’s economic liberalism for losing so many town halls, and accuse him of abandoning his campaign promises of squeezing the rich and reducing inequality. They are not ready to hear that austerity is on the way.
The next two months will be particularly tricky. By mid-April Mr Valls will need to present France’s budget plans for 2015-2017 to the European Commission, and explain how he thinks the government will meet its promise of curbing its budget deficit to below 3% by next year—or, failing that, request yet another delay. Figures out today showed that France missed its target of reducing the deficit in 2013 to 4.1%, ending the year with 4.3% instead, leaving little hope that it can meet its promise for 2015.
Unemployment continues to rise (another of Mr Hollande’s unmet promises) and growth in France remains fragile. Marine Le Pen’s populist National Front, which also benefited from disillusion at the Socialist Party at local elections, could come out on top at voting in May to the European Parliament.
Mr Valls has now got the job he has long wanted, but it will take unusual skills to do it well. He may learn sooner than he had bargained for that the job of prime minister in modern France is a mixed blessing. Do it well, and the president gets the credit; do it poorly, and you get all the blame.