Hollande risks losing majority as French government collapses

Former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg becomes leader of socialist rebels

French president Francois Hollande watches as prime minister Manuel Valls leaves after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday. Photograph: John Schults/Reuters

French president Francois Hollande watches as prime minister Manuel Valls leaves after their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris yesterday. Photograph: John Schults/Reuters

Tue, Aug 26, 2014, 01:01

By dissolving his government yesterday, for the second time, French president François Hollande salvaged his authority and cut short criticism of his customary indecision. Yet the political crisis remains acute. Mr Hollande has reached an all- time record low for any French president, with a 17 per cent approval rating.

Manuel Valls, the popular young prime minister whom Mr Hollande appointed on March 31st, following the socialist party’s disastrous showing in municipal elections, has seen his approval rating plummet to 36 per cent.

With the exception of the socialists, virtually every French political party, from the far left to the far right, yesterday called on Mr Hollande to dissolve the National Assembly and hold early elections. That is unlikely, but Mr Hollande is no longer certain of having a parliamentary majority when the budget is voted next month and may have to resort to “article 49-3”, a constitutional provision that enables the government to enact legislation without a vote.

The ruling socialists lost the support of the ecologists earlier this year, and are expected to lose control of the Senate in elections this autumn.

Last chance

This is the last chance for Mr Hollande to save his term in office, said Le Monde’s front- page editorial. Opposition to his economic policy ostensibly caused the government to collapse. Yet despite repeated tirades by outgoing economy minister Arnaud Montebourg against austerity policies, compared to other European countries France has not yet known real austerity. There have been painful tax hikes but no social programmes have been cut. Mr Montebourg wants a third of the planned deficit reduction of €50 billion over three years to be given to French households to stimulate purchasing power.

The Élysée Palace insists its economic policy remains the “pact of responsibility,” a complex set of measures Mr Hollande announced last December 31st and again on January 14th. The pact is ill understood and has not yet taken effect, but the central idea is to diminish social charges and regulations for businesses to encourage them to create jobs. Mr Hollande suffered a setback on August 6th when the constitutional council rejected a key measure, the reduction of social charges on the lowest salaries.

The left of the left opposed the “pact of responsibility” on the grounds that, like earlier tax credits for businesses announced by Mr Hollande, it “gives presents to the rich”.

By challenging alleged austerity policies and sacrificing his government portfolio, Mr Montebourg becomes the leader of the socialist rebels who reject Mr Hollande’s embrace of social democracy.

A charismatic and popular demagogue, Montebourg had repeatedly threatened to resign on what he portrayed as issues of principle. In 2009 he said he would leave the socialist party if it did not hold a presidential primary. He promised to resign as industry minister in the previous government if the Florange steel factory closed. It did, but he stayed.

Montebourg sniped continuously at Mr Hollande’s first prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and again threatened to leave the government if Ayrault was not replaced by Valls last March.

Mr Hollande has finally called his bluff, but Mr Montebourg may prove more dangerous outside the government than in it. He has never hidden his presidential ambitions, and appears to be positioning himself for the 2017 election. His short-lived and equally ambitious ally Mr Valls is also aiming for 2017 but will want to leave office early enough to distance himself from Mr Hollande’s failures and unpopularity.

Several dissident ministers are expected to leave the government with Mr Montebourg. The culture minister Aurélie Filipetti yesterday published a letter to “Cher Francois” announcing that she “will not be candidate for a new ministerial post” because she prefers “loyalty to my ideals” to the “duty of solidarity” within the government.

Benoit Hamon, the education minister who publicly agreed with Mr Montebourg on Sunday, has been sacked. The fate of justice minister Christiane Taubira is also in question.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right Front National, which won European elections in May, said Mr Montebourg’s criticism of French, German and European austerity policies “validates an essential part of the economic analysis of the Front National”.