The unpopularity contest

shutterstock_121979362Following a brief meeting with President Hollande on Monday 25 August Manuel Valls, the somewhat popular French Prime Minister, asked for the dissolution of his government. The Head of State readily agreed and the Prime Minister is set to propose a new cabinet by Tuesday 26 August.

This is the result of the internal tensions which have been simmering within the government and governing party. Over the weekend Arnaud Montebourg, Minister of the Economy, and Benoît Hamon, Education Minister, publically criticised the Prime Minister’s economic policy, notably the focus on deficit reductions and austerity. As both are heavyweights of the Socialist Party’s left wing with presidential ambitions, their comments have added weight to the criticisms which left-wing Socialist Party MPs have been voicing for some time.

Faced with this dissent within the ranks, Valls needed to react. And with good reason. His predecessor’s government had been heavily criticised for failing to keep its cabinet members in line. Ayrault’s failure to sanction ministers openly undermining him ushered in his downfall. By reacting forcefully to not-so-friendly-fire Valls is attempting to distance himself from this heritage and impose his authority. Montebourg and Hamon will likely be exiled to the wilderness of junior ministerial roles or may be absented from the new government altogether.

More than anything, the conflict is indicative of fundamental divisions between the left and right wings of the Socialist Party. Hollande’s spectacular unpopularity is nurturing the presidential ambitions of leading Socialist figures. Valls enjoys high (although diminishing) popular approval ratings, but suffers from a support deficit within Socialist Party activists that would make the goings of a primary difficult for him. Moreover, 2017 presidential hopefuls will be keen to distance themselves from the action of a government which is increasingly unlikely to solve the structural problems of the French economy.

Over on the right, the UMP has been tearing itself apart with internal scandals over the past few months. The triumphal return which former president Sarkozy had hoped for was undermined by Alain Juppé’s announcement that he will seek the presidency in 2017. Sarkozy has almost the exact opposite problem of Valls: he enjoys strong support of his party membership but remains highly divisive amongst the general population. Keen to be consecrated as a returning hero by his party, he would nonetheless likely face a UMP primary to win the right to run for president. In this he would face not just Juppé, a towering figure of the French right for more than three decades, but potentially several other high-profile contenders.

The internal squabbling as much as partisan mudslinging in the UMP and the PS will continue to favour Marine Le Pen’s Front National, which is counting on a poor showing for both the main parties to make it to the second round of the 2017 presidential elections.

In France, the question today is less “who is popular?” than “who is least unpopular?”.

Alexander Holroyd is Director at FTI Consulting Brussels.

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