Hollande Opens Cabinet to Greens to Broaden Voter Support

  • Greens and centrist parties chiefs join new Hollande cabinet
  • Hollande's inner circle is spared as next election looms

French President Francois Hollande opened his new cabinet to green party members in an effort to expand his electoral appeal in the run up to the 2017 presidential election.

Hollande, saddled with rising unemployment, slumping popularity and division within his own Socialist Party, brought in green party leader Emmanuelle Cosse and Jean-Michel Baylet, who heads the centrist PRG, to rebuild his coalition. He also turned to former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault as a safe pair of hands for the foreign ministry.

Securing allies is key for Hollande given that all recent surveys have shown the president would fail to reach the second round of a presidential election if it were held now. Yet with part of the Socialist Party in revolt over the president’s push to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality, Hollande still faces a steep task in uniting his base.

“Hollande hopes to give the impression that he has broadened his support,” said Bruno Cautres, a political analyst at the Cevipof research institute in Paris. “In the real world it will change nothing. The average voter regards this as a piece of theater that is very far from their lives.”

Discontent with the president is so strong that some Socialists have been debating whether to hold primaries to select their 2017 presidential candidate -- a challenge that no sitting French president has ever faced. In an interview on France’s two most-watched television channels Thursday evening, Hollande side-stepped questions of whether he would submit to such a selection process.

“One can’t be a candidate for the sake of being a candidate,” Hollande said. “I will take the decision at the right moment. But that moment hasn’t come.” He added that he has a set of conditions for seeking a second term and they include achieving a decline in unemployment.

The president’s approval rating has dropped by 20 points in the past two months to 15 percent, according to a poll by TNS Sofres taken between Jan. 28 and Feb. 1. In 2014, his rating fell to 13 percent, the lowest on record for any French president, before picking up following the terror attacks that hit Paris last year.

To help meet that goal, Hollande pledged to press ahead with economic reform, saying “flexibility” and “security” must be the watchwords for a streamlining of French labor law that will be announced in coming weeks.

“We have another 14 months and in those 14 months decisions will be made and reforms will be introduced,” he said. In another favor to the greens, he promised a local referendum on a plan to build a new airport near Nantes, in Western France, a project that has generated months of violent protests, mostly from local and green activists.

Hollande kept his inner circle in the government, including Finance Minister Michel Sapin and Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian. Prime Minister Manuel Valls kept his job, as did Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron.

The 19 women in the new cabinet are almost shut out from the major ministries. Defense, finance, interior, justice and foreign affairs are all held by men, leaving females mostly to more junior files such as housing and culture. The one exception is Segolene Royal, the mother of Hollande’s four children, who as minister for energy and the environment has also gained power over climate-change issues. The cabinet has 38 members, with an equal number of men and women.

Ayrault, 66, takes over from Laurent Fabius, 69, who is retiring from government after a lifetime in politics. The new foreign minister was prime minister under Hollande between May 2012 and March 2014.

“Hollande is bringing back an old horse to do battle,” Cautres said. “There’s nothing particularly dynamic in this cabinet. With an election on the horizon there’s no real space for new personalities. The objective is to show a homogeneous team that will keep any disagreement among themselves.”

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