“Should we now apologize for being on the left?” asked now former Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti. Those words could aptly describe the political earthquake that shook the French government on Tuesday, when French Prime Minister Manuel Valls proclaimed a new list of cabinet ministers. Valls was designated PM just six months ago following the socialist defeat in municipal elections in May.
This decision came following controversy Monday, when Minister of Economy and Productive Recovery Arnaud Montebourg expressed dissent regarding the economic policy of President François Hollande and his PM. Montebourg was supported by Filippetti and Minister of Education Benoit Hamon.
Valls subsequently presented the resignation of his entire cabinet at Hollande’s request. Hollande then asked his PM to form a new government in line with the government’s economic policy. While most of the government has remained intact, Hamond and Montebourg are now gone, along with Filippetti, who quickly declared in an open letter that she would remain “loyal to [her] ideals” and would not be part of the new cabinet.
Montebourg and Hamon have publicly claimed that the austerity policy, pushed nationally by Hollande and internationally by Germany, is incompatible with the values of the left. During a socialist gathering called Fête de la Rose, or “Rose Fair” (the rose being the symbol of the French socialists), the two ministers disavowed the President’s economic policy. Beyond their statements during the fair, Hamon and Montebourg have arguably carried out an ideological coup, claiming in nationwide newspapers that economic growth and employment are impossible without a change of policy.
Montebourg specifically targeted Hollande’s “Pact of Responsibility,” which attempts to lower an alarming unemployment rate (now over 10%) by offering massive tax cuts to French employers in exchange for a promise to hire more employees.
Traditionally, French socialists support policies that favor economic demand, while their right-wing opponents support tactics that reduce charges on employers in order to sustain growth and employment. Hollande’s announcement in December 2013 that he would promote supply over demand came as a shock to many on the left.
Initially, Montebourg quietly denounced the Pact of Responsibility for alleviating the burden on employers without reducing taxes on French households. Montebourg also urged all European nations to abandon austerity measures and to reduce debt by implementing the European equivalent of the New Deal. A number of important socialist representatives in the Assembly have supported these demands, threatening to vote against the Pact.
In the past, dissenting ministers were often scolded into submission and solidarity with the government line. This drastic response by Hollande and Valls may have been dictated by regular criticism that the two could not maintain authority in the government.
The President has committed fully to the current plan, and his chances in the next presidential election may very well depend on the success or failure of this policy. Shifting strategies now could be counterproductive, not only to his political career but also to an economy that requires stability as much as reform.
Putting all his chips on one bet, Hollande has pledged to the European Union to reduce the French debt. Thus far the promised economic growth has failed to appear, and Hollande now lacks the resources to move forward on alternative plans. Nothing but a widespread change in European policy could offer the President an opportunity to back down.
Faced with opposition in the cabinet, Hollande chose consistency and authority over a debate that could have undermined his economic mandate. Though circumstance may have forced Hollande’s strong reaction, Filippetti has expressed a feeling common among the French left: this government has strayed from its left-wing values.
With the departure of the ecologists not long after Valls became Prime Minister, and now with the resignation of the most radical socialists in the cabinet, voters for Hollande may increasingly feel betrayed.
To add further confusion, former candidate to the presidential elections Jean-Luc Mélenchon, a controversial and charismatic leader of the radical left, has recently withdrawn from the political spotlight. A symbolic figure of the radical left, Christiane Taubira remains Minister of Justice. Yet, her lone position is unlikely to calm the growing unrest in the left.
To many, Hollande and Valls appear like stubborn captains of a deserting crew.