The choice of a Prime Minister is the most important political decision that a French President makes. It sends an indellible signal about the direction of the government, its priorities and its style. The choice of a newly elected President carries political weight. It indicates how strong he believes his position to be, both in the country and within his own party. Traditionally the first Prime Minister has been imposed on Presidents by circumstances: Valéry Giscard d’Estaing forced to balance his own camp by naming rising star Jacques Chirac, or François Miterrand doing the same with Michel Rocard.
François Hollande named Jean-Marc Ayrault as Prime Minister yesterday. His final decision was likely between Martin Aubry and Ayrault – two heavy weights in the party. Ayrault is a longtime friend of Hollande and fervant supporter during the primary election. He is also much like the new President in temperament and style. But the choice includes a number of risks, meaning that this safe pair of hands may not be as safe as it first appears.The first issue is one to do with Ayrault’s past – he has a criminal conviction for favoritism in awarding public contracts in his hometown of Nantes from the 1990s. The affair was fairly minor and doesn’t indicate any dishonesty (perhaps more procedural slackness than anything else) but given Hollande’s declaration that his team wouldn’t include any convicted politicians, it does seem odd that the leading political figure behind the President is marked in this way.
Secondly, what to do with Aubry? Rumours abound this morning that she will not finally get the number two job in the cabinet with a newly created Super-Ministry for Youth Affairs, encompassing Culture, Sport, Eduction and whatever else was left lying around on the cabinet table. Her strength of character and strong leftist identity makes her a big political beast and something must have been arranged with her – perhaps to take over Ayrault’s job when he gracefully withdraws from the Prime Minister-ship.
For the third risky aspect of the appointment of Ayrault is his temporary nature. Given that Ayrault synchs so closely with the President’s style, and that Hollande has declared repeatedly that he wanted to give the Prime Minister more power and authority (at least in respect of domestic policy). This is probably an indiction that France is about to return to the tradition of the disposal Prime Minister, junked in the event that the President needs to protect his own image and give a new and fresh look to a government. Given Ayrault’s age (he is 62), Aubry’s lack of a high level government job and apparent lack of ambition for the Presidency itself that means it has become almost certain that he will stay in post (all being well for the Socialists at the legislative elections of course) until the next big electoral rendez-vous – 2014’s local elections. In the aftermath of what is normally a difficult time for a government in power, Aubry or Manuel Valls could step in as Prime Minister depending on whether a shift to the left or right respectively is deemed necessary.
Finally, Ayrault’s risks broadly centre on his lack of governmental experience. Whilst the talk of previous ministerial experience is often over blown in France (neither Tony Blair nor Barack Obama had national-level experience in power prior to their elections) Ayrault’s CV looks sparse compared to Aubry, Laurent Fabius or Pierre Moscovici, who are likely to be current or future ministers under Hollande and who have all sat in cabinet in the previous Lionel Jospin-led cabinet from 1997-2002. That could ignite tensions within the cabinet over whether he is “up to the job” when the inevitable crises start to rock government.
Ayrault is a risk from what was thought to be a risk-adverse President. Time will tell as to whether it was a risk worth taking.