Segolene Royal returns as former partner Hollande reshuffles cabinet

President recalls former partner for duty after voters gives his Socialist Party a bloody nose

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 02 April, 2014, 7:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 April, 2014, 4:47am

French President Francois Hollande has recalled his 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 prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault and replace him with tough-talking interior minister Manuel Valls.

The two wasted no time in radically reshaping the government, appointing two new faces in a cabinet of just 16 ministers. There were previously 38.

Royal, Hollande's ex-partner and mother of his four children, was named ecology minister in a spectacular return to mainstream politics for the woman who lost the presidency to Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.

Royal is one of the Socialists' biggest hitters but her inclusion in Hollande's first cabinet was reportedly blocked because of hostility from Valerie Trierweiler, the president's then girlfriend.

Hollande separated from Trierweiler in January following the revelation of his affair with actress Julie Gayet.

Pierre Moscovici, finance and economy minister, was unable to pull France out of the economic doldrums. He was replaced by two contrasting politicians.

Former labour minister Michel Sapin, a supporter of budgetary rigour, was appointed to the powerful post of finance minister. Left-wing firebrand Arnaud Montebourg, who as industrial renewal minister in the previous government drew strong criticism that he was anti-business, was named economy minister.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius kept their posts.

The government faces an uphill struggle, with the tough task of shrinking the country's jobless rate, which reached a record 3.34 million in February.

The ministers would have to deal with "an economic context that has deteriorated sharply", said Frederic Dabi of the Ifop polling institute, with a public deficit still stubbornly high after 22 months of Socialist rule.

Growth, meanwhile, is almost non-existent and the exasperation of the French was reflected in Sunday's municipal polls that saw the Socialists lose 155 towns and cities to the main opposition and far-right.

Hollande has tasked Valls with implementing a package of pro-business policies known as the Responsibility Pact, which cuts taxes on firms that are widely viewed as hampering employment and growth, to be financed by spending cuts of €50 billion (HK$535 billion).

Valls is popular with voters across the political spectrum but his style and politics, often compared to those of former British prime minister Tony Blair, have alienated some on the party's left.