France’s prime minister was set to appoint a new Cabinet yesterday after tendering his government’s resignation amid a row over economic policy, plunging the country into a fresh political crisis. As desperately unpopular French President Francois Hollande battles to overcome splits in his ruling Socialists and revive the stagnant French economy, Manuel Valls was expected to announce the makeup of his team in the afternoon.
The shock resignation on Monday was seen as a bid to restore order after a weekend of sniping from French Minister of the Economy Arnaud Montebourg, who attacked France’s economic direction and the country’s main European ally, Germany.
Montebourg, a left-winger who is no stranger to controversy, made it clear he would not be part of the new team and launched a hefty broadside at the policies of austerity he said had catapulted France and Europe into the worst economic crisis since the 1929 Depression.
French Minister of Education Benoit Hamon and French Minister of Culture Aurelie Filippetti later said they would join him in self-imposed exile from the next government.
Top French daily Le Monde described the reshuffle as “the last chance for the president to save his five-year term” as Hollande faces record-low unpopularity at 17 percent and record-high unemployment.
The reshuffle was also a desperate bid to quell unseemly infighting in his ruling Socialists between left-leaning members like Montebourg and those, like Valls, who tend more to the center.
The departing Montebourg lashed out at the austerity policies implemented by the Valls government, saying they were only prolonging and worsening a “serious, destructive and long” crisis in Europe.
“For two years, I fought tirelessly to convince, I wrote notes and letters to the head of the executive and made private and public declarations to attempt to convince and implore the president to refuse excessive measures for our country that risked damaging and sinking our economy,” he said.
Acknowledging that he had failed to convince Hollande or the prime minister, he said: “I believed it necessary to take back my freedom in the same way he [Valls] accepted to give it to me.”
Montebourg, who is 51, is well known for loose-cannon comments, having made headlines in the past for his outspoken criticism of Germany, which he has blamed for factory closures in France.
He was promoted to his current position in April in a government shake-up after the Socialist party suffered a drubbing at local elections, and has had to cozy up to French Minister of Finance Michel Sapin, who supports the very austerity measures that he disagrees with.
However, he maintained he was leaving “on amicable terms” with the government.
Opposition figures reacted with shock to the unfolding events, pointing to a major crisis of confidence at the heart of the executive, with French opposition leader Marine Le Pen even calling for the French lower house National Assembly to be dissolved.
The crisis comes at a time when France is mired in stubbornly slow economic recovery, with high unemployment.
The French economy has been stagnant for the past six months, and the government has been forced to halve its growth forecast to 0.5 percent for this year.
Hollande and Valls say the answer to the economic crisis is their so-called Responsibility Pact, which offers businesses tax breaks of about 40 billion euros (US$55 billion) in exchange for a pledge by companies to create 500,000 jobs over three years.
Hollande plans to finance this with 50 billion euros in spending cuts, and the plan has angered those on the left of the party — including Montebourg.
The prime minister himself is also deeply unpopular with some Socialists.
Two Green ministers left the government when Valls was appointed in March after the Socialists’ humiliation at the polls.
However Frederic Dabi, deputy head of polling firm IFOP, warned against overestimating the impact of the latest crisis on public opinion.
“We have a government and president that are historically unpopular, and what will make them popular or more unpopular isn’t what happens in the government in terms of people, but policies being implemented and a lack of results,” Dabi said.
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