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Slipping Out of the Corset: Can New Prime Minister Deliver 'Changement'?

By in Paris

Photo Gallery: New French Government Begins Work Photos
DPA

Prime Minister Manuel Valls' job is to save François Hollande's presidency. The new government has committed to some changes. But will it push through the painful reforms the country needs or will it chart a political collision course with Brussels?

With his deep voice, prominent chin and black hair, Manuel Valls is a man who exudes an aura of authority. As France's new prime minister, it's an authority he will also have to put to the test.

Things had a tendency to go haywire whenever they could in the government of his predecessor, Jean-Marc Ayrault. The ministers often jostled like validation-starved adolescents, trying to steal the show from one another while the unemployment rate continued rising to record levels. Given all that, this is probably a good time for a disciplinarian -- a man who was occasionally France's most beloved politician during his time as the interior minister and who, in his snappy public appearances, has something of a policeman about him -- to be at the government helm.

Valls, 51, is the Socialist Party's last hope. His problem is that many members of his party don't consider the son of a Catalan painter and a Swiss woman, who only became a French citizen at age 20, to be a true Socialist. At best, he's seen as a right-wing Social Democrat, if not Nicolas Sarkozy reincarnated.

It's no surprise: Valls, after all, once stunned his party by stating that it should remove the word "socialist" from its name, because "it doesn't mean anything anymore." When he ran in the 2011 internal party primary, he advocated "unlocking the 35-hour work week" and a lowering of payroll taxes. He didn't even make it to 6 percent. He later became a popular interior minister by focusing on law and order -- targeting the Roma to the approval of the majority of the French public and the dismay of the left-wing establishment.

An Unexpected Rise to the Top

Only two years ago, right after François Hollande's election as president, it was barely imaginable that Manuel Valls would someday become the prime minister of a Socialist government. But the president had no other option left: He had to appoint Valls out of sheer necessity. Although Hollande's popularity was recently pegged at 25 percent, 61 percent of voters approved of his selection of Valls.

During the previous weekend's local elections, the Socialists reached a historic new low: They lost the vote in 155 of the country's 1,081 communities with over 9,000 inhabitants, most of them to the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and many to the right-wing populist Front National. It was an expression of the voters' frustrations: with the bad economy, the seemingly amateurish performance of their government, the elusive president. France is stuck in a deep depression, and on Election Day these feelings turned into anger.

A devastating election calls for a presidential reaction, and in France this usually involves changing the government. Hollande would have preferred to have kept the loyal and humble Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was just as unpopular as he was. When he realized that wouldn't be possible, he supposedly asked his confidant, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who declined the job.

Valls is a risk for Hollande, and, generally speaking there's nothing Hollande dreads more than risk. His former interior minister is a hands-on, confident, ambitious man, who is frequently spoken about as a possible future candidate for the presidency. Unlike Hollande, Valls knows exactly what he would like to change about the country -- if he only could.

A Tight Political Corset?

Valls' problem is that Hollande probably won't allow him to change too much. He will have little room for political maneuvering -- in France, it's the president that determines the political line.

On Monday, Valls held his first major policy speech in parliament, and it provided an outlook into how he might master the complicated task of balancing the wishes of his anxious majority and his own promise of change. He pledged to tell France -- which has experienced in his words "too much suffering and not enough hope" -- the truth and announced a reduction in labor costs and €50 billion ($70 billion) in budget cuts. Still, even though both the man and the rhetoric certainly seemed fresh, he did little more than detail promises already made by Hollande in January. The only surprise is his plan to halve the number of French regions, but it is only scheduled to take effect in 2021 -- far beyond Hollande's term in office.

Officially, the new government represents a departure from the past: With eight female and eight male ministers, it is one of the smallest governments in the history of the Fifth Republic -- the previous one had included 34 people. Hollande has called this his "battle government."

To contain the danger posed to him by Valls, the president has corseted his new colleague: In-keeping with his concept of "synthesis," he has surrounded the prime minister with a team he will have to fight. The makeup of the government has changed little, and, in terms of policy, doesn't represent a substantial break with the past.

Valls passed the confidence vote in parliament comfortably on Monday, even though the Greens have left the government in protest and some of the most left-wing Socialists are doing little to hide their discontent. But Valls is surrounded by Hollande loyalists, and moreover, the party's left-wing ministers have been strengthened. These include Arnaud Montebourg, who is now the economics minister. And then there's the glitziest inductee to the cabinet: Environment Minister Ségolène Royal. The former presidential candidate, former life partner of President Francois Hollande and mother of his four children, beamed as she moved into the Environment Ministry which she now heads, last Wednesday.

Royal wasn't offered a cabinet post after Hollande's 2012 win because of the challenging family situation. Her banishment from the upper echelon never wounded her though, and she tirelessly lobbied for her entry into the government. "If I hadn't been together with Hollande, I would be prime minister. I'm the right choice," she said two weeks ago, according to the Le Canard enchaine newspaper.

A Tighter Government

What should be expected from Valls? He is supposed to run a tighter government, transferring some of his energy over to the executive. He's a professional communicator -- he played a key role in the professional organization of Hollande's presidential campaign -- and, as a result, people expect him to improve the government's thus far disastrous public image. In terms of policy, Manuel Valls can try to push Hollande to take more courageous steps, but can't risk coming across as disloyal while doing so.

France's problems remain obvious. At 10 percent, the unemployment rate is twice as high as Germany's. The country is massively in debt, the state apparatus is bloated and the industrial sector isn't competitive. All of these problems preceded Hollande's election on May 6, 2012, but his presidency is defined by a fundamental fallacy. He never ran to deeply reform France, only to put an end to the Sarkozy years. He promised "changement" in his campaign, but that never meant a fundamental change; Hollande's feel-good campaign promised a "rehabilitation" of the country, not reforms.

After the election, Hollande lacked the courage to disappoint some of his supporters -- he would have had to clearly show the French people the state of the country and explain how he wanted to change it. But he never did that, presumably because he never wanted to. He instead waited for the growth to return on its own and prematurely promised a decrease in unemployment levels. His zigzag course left everybody confused.

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