The French Tony Blair

Can a new Prime Minister save François Hollande?
April 23, 2014

Master tactician: Manuel Valls. © Fondapol

François Hollande is a remarkable tactician. A master at surfing the currents of the Socialist Party, he has covered up cold-blooded manoeuvering with well-told jokes.

But such skills are no replacement for strategy. Too cautious to take straightforward decisions, Hollande has trapped himself in a mess of unfulfilled promises, verbal incantations and half-baked reforms. This has irritated taxpayers, discouraged business, disappointed socialist traditionalists and done little to improve the dire condition of the economy and national psyche. No one has deciphered what his long-term policies might be, short of waiting for a better economic cycle. After almost two years in office, Hollande is the most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Hollande was bruised by the local elections in March, which delivered a stinging defeat for his party, a victory for the conservatives, a breakthrough for Marine Le Pen’s far right and, even more worrying, an unprecedented abstention rate. Hollande’s loyal and tepid Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, was ousted.

After much hesitation, the President made the bold, inescapable choice to replace him with the best-rated of his cabinet ministers: Manuel Valls, Minister of the Interior—a long time mayor of a difficult Paris “banlieue,” young by French political standards (at 51), energetic and very good at spinning.

This is unprecedented in French politics: a weak President flanked by a popular, vigorous Prime Minister who has never hidden his ambition for the top job. Valls is a self-avowed social liberal. At least, he was back in 2011, when he competed for the party primaries, decrying the 35-hour week, the overweight welfare state and the very name of the Socialist Party which he wanted to modernise. Although labelled as the French Tony Blair, he scored poorly and joined Hollande’s winning team, forging with him what has been described as a loyal relationship.

His nomination as Prime Minister angered socialist leftists, as well as the Greens, who refused to join his government, weakening his majority in parliament. But it was praised by all those, conservatives included, who now hope for clear government strategy and for consistency to the so-called “pacte de responsabilita trade-off for business to pay less taxes and create more jobs.

In January, in what was hailed as a true social-democrat coming out, Hollande made a series of announcements promoting entrepreneurship and supply-side policies. Three months later, they are still to be implemented. Scrutinised by Brussels, tough reforms have to be undertaken: by 2017, €50bn of cuts in public spending; renewed efforts to bring down the national debt; and more efficient fiscal policies to stimulate growth and fight rising unemployment, which stood at 10.4 per cent in February.

Will Valls be given a loose rein—to pick his own team and his own words—in order to implement this gruelling set of reforms? “France needs a fighting government!” Hollande declared on television, justifying the reshuffle and the shrinking of the cabinet. Two days later, he had made sure his new Prime Minister was under tight control. True to his usual balancing act, he retained most of the key figures of the Socialist Party, who do not necessarily agree with each other, nor with the Prime Minister—starting with Segolène Royal, his former companion and mother of their four children. The finance and the economy portfolios have been split between Michel Sapin, a lacklustre technocrat who will have to negotiate in Brussels with the very people Arnaud Montebourg, his volatile counterpart, keeps insulting.

In his first TV interview, Valls used the same vocabulary as his predecessor, taking up the customary socialist stance on preserving the welfare system and keeping globalisation at bay. “We are all Hollandais!” he exclaimed, insisting on his loyalty to the President.

There may now be two master tacticians at the helm of the country. The problem remains that they have no coherent strategy.