Hollande reshuffles cabinet, names Ayrault as foreign minister

Jean-Marc Ayrault [European Commission]

French President François Hollande reshuffled his cabinet yesterday (11 February), naming Jean-Marc Ayrault foreign minister and adding several ecologists to government as he seeks to widen his political base ahead of a presidential poll in 2017.

Ayrault, a 66-year-old former prime minister, will become France’s top diplomat after veteran politician Laurent Fabius bowed out of politics to take up a post at the Constitutional Council.

A fluent German speaker, Ayrault’s understanding of the language and culture will be seen as an advantage in dealing with Berlin and the most pressing issues facing the European Union, such as the migration crisis.

He was chosen over environment minister Ségolène Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, who was touted as a candidate for the high-profile post.

In a minor shake-up of his Socialist government, Hollande also named a member of the French Greens Party (EELV), Emmanuelle Cosse, as housing minister and included two other ecologist politicians as under-secretaries in the new government.

The move is widely seen as a bid to rally those on the left of the political spectrum ahead of the 2017 election, in which the deeply unpopular Hollande is seeking a second term.

Hollande “must increase his political base at all costs”, a source close to the president said ahead of the reshuffle announcement, speaking on condition of anonymity.

>>Read: Can France revive its influence in Brussels?

“We can’t face a presidential election without a Socialist family rallied behind their candidate and without the ecologists,” said a source close to the president.

France’s Greens Party refused to take part in government in 2014 after Manuel Valls – considered to be on the right of the Socialist Party – was named prime minister, and has been divided ever since over whether they should return to the fold.

Torrid first term

The 61-year-old Hollande, elected in 2012, has had a torrid first term, lumbered with record unemployment, a stagnating economy and France’s worst-ever terror attacks.

He already carried out a major government shake-up in 2014 after the Socialists took a drubbing in municipal elections.

Ayrault was ditched as prime minister in that reshuffle after two years in the job in favour of Valls, his new boss.

>>Read: Hollande appoints Valls as Prime Minister after election rout

Regional elections at the end of 2015 did not go much better, with the centre-right Republicans of former president Nicolas Sarkozy coming out in front.

The most unpopular French president in history, Hollande saw his star rise after the jihadist attacks against Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015.

It rose again after he took a tough line on security following the attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 130 people in Paris in November.

However this time his rise was short-lived, as praise for his post-attacks approach quickly turned to criticism both from within his own party and the conservative opposition.

>>Read: French democracy under ‘threat’ from state of emergency

Efforts to enshrine tough new security measures in the constitution, and a hotly contested reform to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality, have been deeply divisive.

Rebellious fringe

Efforts to kickstart a flagging economy with a raft of reforms last year led to a similar criticism of a shift in ideology, with a rebellious fringe of the Socialists accusing the Valls government of being too pro-business.

The dissent in the corridors of power has left voters cold. An opinion poll by Liberation, published this week, showed some 75% of French voters do not want Hollande to be re-elected.

Record unemployment figures of about 10% are also haunting Hollande, who vowed at the start of his mandate that he would not run again if he failed to improve the jobless rate.

In another blow to Hollande’s hopes to unite the left ahead of the 2017 election, the leader of the radical Left Party, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who won 11% of votes in 2012, announced Wednesday he would run for president.

“I don’t think this is convenient for the left or the ecologists,” said government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll.

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