French President Francois Hollande yesterday recalled former partner Segolene Royal from the political wilderness to join a new streamlined government, days after his Socialist Party suffered an election drubbing.
Sunday’s stinging setback in nationwide municipal elections prompted Hollande to sack former French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and replace him with tough-talking former French minister of the interior Manuel Valls.
The two wasted no time in radically reshaping the government, appointing two new faces in a Cabinet of just 16 ministers, less than half the 38 in the previous line-up.
Royal, Hollande’s ex-partner and mother of his four children, was named minister for ecology, sustainable development and energy in a spectacular return to mainstream politics for the candidate defeated by former French president Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2007 elections.
Royal is one of the Socialists’ biggest hitters, but her inclusion in Hollande’s first Cabinet was reportedly blocked because of hostility from the president’s then-girlfriend, journalist Valerie Trierweiler.
That obstacle has now been removed, courtesy of Hollande’s separation from Trierweiler in January in the aftermath of the revelation of his affair with actress Julie Gayet.
Former French finance and economy minister Pierre Moscovici — unable to pull France out of the economic doldrums — was replaced by two contrasting politicians.
Former French minister of labor Michel Sapin — a close Hollande ally and supporter of budgetary rigor — was appointed to the powerful post of finance minister.
Left-wing firebrand Arnaud Montebourg, who as minister for industrial renewal in the previous government drew strong criticism that he was anti-business, was named minister of the economy.
The new government faces an uphill struggle to reduce the number of unemployed, which reached a record 3.34 million in February.
The ministers will have to deal with “an economic context that has deteriorated sharply,” said Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute, with the public deficit still high after 22 months of Socialist rule.
Moreover, growth is almost nonexistent and the exasperation of the French was reflected in Sunday’s municipal polls, which saw the Socialists lose 155 towns and cities to the main opposition and far right.
Hollande has tasked Valls with the pro-business Responsibility Pact, which cuts taxes on firms to be financed by spending cuts of 50 billion euros (US$69 billion).
He also asked him to set in motion a new “Solidarity Pact” that would include steps to boost spending on education and health, and reduce personal income taxes.
Economists say the critical question is if the new government will continue to respect commitments to the EU to reduce its public deficit from 4.3 to 3 percent of output.