New French cabinet shelves European affairs

Arnaud Montebourg, May 2012. [Reuters]

The appointment of Arnaud Montebourg, and disputes over public debt, will complicate relations with Brussels. EURACTIV France reports.

After the announcement of the new French cabinet on 2 April, only a few weeks before the European elections, Manuel Valls’ government appears to have put EU affairs on the backburner.

European affairs in limbo

The French prime minister announced a government of just 16 ministers. The minister for European affairs is currently conspicuous by his absence. If the former minister, Theirry Repentin, stays in government, he will have to settle for secretary of state.

Renouncing this ministry has many up in arms leading up to the European elections. MEP Jean Rotta (UMP) wrote on Twitter, “There is no minister for European affairs two months before the European elections.” Similar sentiments were expressed by Green MEP Yannick Jadot, who stated “François Hollande and the government continue to ignore Europe.”

Jean-Pierre Audy, president of the French delegation to the PPE in the European Parliament, echoes his fellow MEPs. “On the new government: no minister for European affairs […] our European partners will not be impressed.” The MEP Marielle se Sarnez states, “the fact that the word ‘Europe’ was not mentioned during the announcement of the government is symbolic. What’s more, there is no minister for European affairs, which also says a lot”.

If disappointment over the lack of a minister for European affairs is obvious, concerns about future relations with the European Commission have also emerged.

Tensions over public debt

The cabinet reshuffle has already damaged relations between Paris and Brussels over France’s public debt. In François Hollande’s public address on 31 March, during which he announced the appointment of Manuel Valls, the president made it clear that he would try to renegotiate Brussels’ demands on the French deficit being under 3% of GDP by 2015.

Hollande stated that “the government will have to convince Europe that France’s contribution to competitiveness, to growth, must be taken into account with respect to our commitments.”

These words provoked an instant reaction from Brussels, where the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, reminded France of its obligations. The same could be heard from Jeroen Dijsselbloem, president of the Euro Group, who highlighted that France was already given an extra two years to reduce its deficit.

>> Read: French public debt at record high

Relations are tense with Europe. France is due to send the Commission a new stability and reform programme this month.

The appointment of Arnaud Montebourg as minister for economy is seen as a hostile act. Montebourg is one of the Commission’s most staunch opponents, and has long criticised EU policies regarding competition, budget and finance.

The infamous minister will share Pierre Moscovici’s old job with Michel Sapin, former minister for employment, and now minister for public accounts. Sapin will deal with ECOFIN-relations and reducing public finances, while Arnaud Montebourg will concentrate on boosting France’s economy.

Divided economy and finances

Montebourg’s appointment as minister for the economy has raised some eyebrows. Marielle de Sarnez states that “in finances, it is not very coherent: the minister of economy, Arnaud Montebourg, is going to spend lots of money, while Michel Sapin is in charge of the budget and will attempt to tighten the belt; this is not a strategy for Europe, and neither the Parti Socialist nor the UMP will openly admit that France needs Europe”.

“By appointing Mr Montebourg to the Economy, a renowned anti-liberal, the French President is sending a very bad message to the world and Europe” says Camille Bedin, Secretary General at the UMP.

Arnaud Montebourg has demanded that the consensus on external trade be reached; something that Laurent Fabius has been demanding for a long time.

Read>> Spring cleaning in French politics

The question of external trade is particularly important during TTIP talks, and will no doubt be an important issue for the next number of years. Leaving it in the hands of Montebourg, who has always been publicly hostile to globalisation, might compromise future negotiations. French public opinion is already against it.

Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front, also criticised the allocation of roles in the French ministry for foreign affairs.

She stated that “Michel Sapin will be in charge of applying ultraliberal and anti-industrial dogmas dictated by the EU, when Arnaud Montebourg will be in charge of giving an impression of industrial resolution at the head of the state”.

Is Manuel Valls a Eurosceptic?

The personality of the new prime minister does not suit the European project. In 2005, he had initially backed a No vote to the Lisbon Treaty, before eventually changing sides.

This year, tension was high between the Commission and the minister on the issue of Roma. Manuel Valls was minister of the interior at the time, and was called to order by the Vice-President of the Commission Viviane Reding, following his comments on the inability of Roma to integrate in French society.

Harlem Désir, First secretary of the Parti Socialiste:

“I salute the swift formation of a smaller, more equal, ready for combat and competent government capable of carrying out reforms regarding the state, employment and social justice. [..] In compliance with the commitments the French president, the government under Manuel Valls will act quickly to re-establish confidence in the French people, amplify policy reforms, and tackle problems of social injustice and spending power. It will fight for the reorientation of Europe, engage in the ecological transition and create the necessary conditions for economic growth.”

Camille Bedin, Secretary General of the UMP:

“The Valls government is a copy and paste of the former government: almost half of the ministers have retained their positions. The main changes were Ségolène Royal and Michel Sapin, who both recover positions that they held in the 1992 government. Change is obviously a distant concept.”

On 30 March, the French Parti Socialiste suffered a electoral rout during the second round of local elections. Having lost 155 towns, some of which are historically bastions of the French left such as Limoges, Saint-Etienne or Belfort, the left has been damaged for future elections.

In the wake of the electoral disaster, the French president François Hollande announced that he would nominate Manuel Valls to lead his new 16-minister strong government, seeing the departure of Pierre Moscovici and the arrival of Ségolène Royale and François Rebsamen.

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