Hollande names new centrist prime minister after poll rout

Government set to amplify shift towards pro-market economic reforms and spending cuts

Manuel Valls (51) has been compared with “New Labour” former British premier Tony Blair both for his pro-business ideas and his dashing style.  Photograph: Reuters

Manuel Valls (51) has been compared with “New Labour” former British premier Tony Blair both for his pro-business ideas and his dashing style. Photograph: Reuters

 

French president François Hollande chose centrist interior minister Manuel Valls as his new prime minister yesterday, a coalition source said, replacing Jean-Marc Ayrault who quit after the ruling Socialists were trounced in local elections.

Valls (51) has been compared with “New Labour” former British premier Tony Blair both for his pro-business ideas and his dashing style. He is a bogeyman to the Socialist left, having proposed changing the party’s name and criticised the flagship 35-hour work week it pioneered over a decade ago.

The choice of Valls, the Barcelona-born son of Spanish immigrant parents, suggested Hollande is set to amplify an EU-mandated shift towards pro-market economic reforms and public spending cuts rather than turn back as left-wingers demanded.

Political commentators have compared Valls, who has taken a tough line on crime and Roma migrants, with former conservative president Nicolas Sarkozy, who earned his spurs as a security hardliner in the same ministerial position.

Speculation of a cabinet reshuffle mounted after Ayrault acknowledged he and his ministers bore part of the blame for Sunday’s defeat, which saw 155 towns swing to the centre-right UMP and the far-right National Front claim 11.


Resignation
The coalition source confirmed local media reports of Valls’ nomination in a brief text message. Minutes earlier, Ayrault’s office announced the prime minister had tendered his resignation to Hollande.

“I don’t see how there won’t be a major reshuffle,” François Rebsamen, a Socialist senator and long-time Hollande ally, said, noting that polls show the French did not trust the government to turn around unemployment of more than 10 per cent.

Facing the lowest popularity levels of any president in the 56-year-old Fifth Republic, Hollande changed tack this year towards a more pro-business stance aimed at spurring investment and jobs through cuts in corporate social charges.

The president has said a mid-April vote in parliament on his “responsibility pact” package of €30 billion ($41.35 billion) in tax cuts for companies will also be a vote of confidence in his government.

Questions were raised over whether he would stick with the reforms as left-wingers said the record abstention rate in the town hall vote showed that working-class voters wanted Hollande to return to his Socialist roots and abandon the pact.

“Don’t be afraid to abandon this path,” said an open letter to Hollande on the website of Paris Socialist senator Marie-Noelle Lienemann and signed by fellow left-wingers Jerome Guedj and Emmanuel Maurel.

“Job creation comes from a relaunch of public investment and consumption,” it said, urging Hollande to end a freeze on public sector salaries, raise the minimum salary and pensions.

Weeks before France must present the EU with new plans to bring down its public deficit, the letter said the government should ignore the demands of the EU stability pact committing it to a deficit under 3 per cent of output. – (Reuters)