Shadow of Angela Merkel looms over Francois Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle

President has consistently been judged by how well his government has stood up to Germany

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 9:09pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 August, 2014, 9:09pm

Angela Merkel has just brought down the French government. That, at least, is the way Francois Hollande's troubles will be seen on the protectionist left wing of his governing Socialist party.

Formally, the political turmoil in Paris is the collapse of a government. In effect, however, it is a reshuffle, with the prime minister, Manuel Valls, resigning only to be asked immediately to form a new cabinet.

The big casualty is certain to be Arnaud Montebourg, the powerful economics minister and a figure of no small ambition on the French left. Montebourg has said he will not feature in the new cabinet.

Hollande's uncomfortable calculation is whether Montebourg, a robust controversialist, is more dangerous inside or outside his government tent.

Montebourg's main sin was to question Hollande's lacklustre attempts to kickstart the flagging economy. But he couched his criticism in anti-German rhetoric, bitterly complaining that Merkel's domination of European fiscal policy was strangling France and Italy.

It was clear he was demanding that Hollande stand up more forcefully to the German chancellor, comparing the president unfavourably with Charles De Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher. Through the sheer force of leadership, they had turned European policymaking around singlehandedly, Montebourg declared.

The Elysee Palace was less than amused, forcing Hollande to make his second major reshuffle in months.

The French leader came into office at the height of the euro crisis in 2011 as the anti-Merkel, campaigning against German fiscal rigour, denouncing austerity as the German-scripted answer to Europe's travails, and trying to maintain the Franco-German relationship while concocting a Club Med pact against Berlin with Spain and Italy (discreetly supported by Washington and London).

Three years on, Merkel is as strong as ever. Hollande has never looked weaker. An opinion poll at the weekend put his approval rating at 17 per cent, the lowest presidential rating ever in the Fifth Republic.

Unemployment remains stubbornly high, the economy is stagnating, failing to muster the government's projected 1 per cent growth this year, Hollande needs Brussels to relax its budget deficit targets for France for a third time and his flagship policies amount to a French form of austerity: spending cuts combined with corporate tax breaks.

So far, the results of Hollande's efforts are meagre. If and when he fails, there will be plenty more like Montebourg lamenting that Hollande administered the German medicine but the patient failed to respond.