French PM earns praise in debut, but can he rescue Hollande from himself?

Prime Minister Manuel Valls passed his first vote of confidence yesterday and won press plaudits. But the challenge of revitalizing Hollande's unpopular policies is daunting.

Charles Platiau/Reuters
New French Prime Minister Manuel Valls delivers a general policy speech at the National Assembly in Paris on Tuesday. Mr. Valls won a vote of confidence from French lawmakers last evening and, judging from today’s headlines, a vote of confidence from much of the press as well.

The man who would save the administration of François Hollande, the most unpopular French president in modern history, has vaulted his first hurdle.

But long-term success for new Prime Minister Manuel Valls, appointed last week in a cabinet shakeup, will depend on his ability to put a shiny – and more resolute – gloss on an agenda largely unchanged from that which Mr. Hollande announced at the beginning of the year.

Mr. Valls won a vote of confidence from French lawmakers Tuesday evening and, judging from today’s headlines, a vote of confidence from much of the press as well. “A new tone,” “truth,” and “without taboo” were the words employed this morning to praise Valls’ first address to parliament.

Now everyone will be watching to see if the “new chapter” promised yesterday by the popular but polarizing Valls will actually turn a page in France.

In the short term, Valls, who was named to the job after bruising municipal elections, will attempt to limit further damages to the ruling Socialist party ahead of European elections next month. In the long term, however, he faces the gargantuan task of essentially rescuing the Hollande administration from itself.

The national mood, as measured across opinion polls, is somber, fueled by high unemployment, an inability to reduce the public deficit, and zero trust that the government can get its job done.

“Too much suffering, not enough hope – that is the situation of France," Valls began his speech.

He promised to cut labor costs and even redraw France’s administrative map, reducing the number of regions in half, with an eye towards greater efficiency. He sought to appease the left in a plan to cut taxes for the lowest wage earners, and in a nod to the European Union, said France will work to bring down deficit, though he did not say when.

Most of his plans were originally announced by Hollande in the president’s annual address in January. But since then, those on the far left think Hollande and his cabinet are abandoning the ideals of the left, while the right – and many in Europe – say the reform path, even if successful, hardly goes far enough.

The government is betting that Valls – who was the most popular member of Hollande’s cabinet before the reshuffle – can bring consensus. He is largely seen as a straight-talker who is not boxed in by ideology.  

But as he tried to appease the growing factions yesterday, there was a hint of the risk he faces ahead: that he no longer be seen as an agent of change, but part of the dismally unpopular machinery.

In fact, the right-leaning Le Figaro, which took a different line than most of the press today, argued that Valls’ speech showed he is not the reformer “that one expected," it wrote. He has become “in a word,” it opined, “Hollande-ized.”

And if that happens, says Philippe Moreau Chevrolet, a columnist for Le Nouvel Observateur, “it would be the beginning of the end for him,” he says. “If he is not [seen as] someone new, we are basically doomed.”

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