On Tuesday, May 15, in a ceremony held at the Elysée Palace known as the “passation des pouvoirs” (or transfer of powers), François Hollande will succeed Nicolas Sarkozy, becoming the seventh president of the Fifth Republic. One of his first tasks—besides determining Europe’s fate with Angela Merkel—will be to appoint a prime minister, whom he will charge with forming a government. The current prime minister, François Fillon, submitted his resignation on May 10. The president-elect has said that he would like to have a new government appointed by the evening of May 16. This government will serve until the second round of parliamentary elections is held on June 17, at which point it is likely that a slightly modified government will be named—one that, presumably, will serve a number of years, until Hollande decides a reshuffling is needed.
Naming the prime minister will be one of Hollande’s most important early decisions as president—one that should prove particularly illustrative of his governing style. Who are the top contenders? What factors will he consider? And whom will he choose?
Hollande needs a prime minister who is competent, but also one whom he can trust. Sarkozy has set an interesting precedent with Fillon, the only prime minister of the Fifth Republic to have served the entirety of a presidential term (though Georges Pompidou, as De Gaulle’s prime minister, held the position longer, back when presidential terms lasted for seven years). Fillon served as the reliable, “no drama,” can-do executor of Sarkozy’s often impulsive will, without ever becoming a yes-man or relinquishing his own considerable stature. Hollande might be tempted to find a socialist equivalent—a trustworthy loyalist—especially given his own party’s tendency to debilitating infighting. Yet doing so would be a departure for Hollande, who, as head of the Parti Socialiste (PS), was known as “l’homme du synthèse” (the “man of synthesis”)—someone, that is, who is good at reconciling a wide array of competing interests. Consequently, Hollande might prefer a prime minister who would “balance the ticket” (as Americans say), particularly someone who would represent the party’s left wing (given that Hollande is generally considered to lean to his party’s right). Even so, I imagine that Hollande, upon assuming the presidency, might chafe at appearing beholden to the PS’s petty fiefdoms. He won the election. Shouldn’t he be entitled to a prime minister devoted to honoring the commitments he made to the French people?
As I see it, François Hollande’s best choice would be Jean-Marc Ayrault. Though not exactly a household name in France, and virtually unknown abroad, Ayrault has the political experience and personal loyalty to make him eminently qualified for the prime-ministership. Ayrault, who is 62, has a working-class background and is a native of western France, from the region around Nantes. He was a high-school German teacher before throwing himself into socialist politics in the 1970s. He has been the mayor of Nantes—France’s sixth largest city—for over twenty years. As mayor, he raised the city’s cultural profile and carried out a number of urban renewal projects (he also erected a monument there to the victims of the slave trade, of which Nantes was a major hub). Moreover, Ayrault, who also represents Nantes in the National Assembly, has been the leader of the socialist parliamentary group for fifteen years.
Ayrault thus blends executive experience as mayor with extensive knowledge of the legislature. Hollande has said little about what he is looking for in a prime minister, other than that he wants someone who knows the parliament—a remark that may indicate that Ayrault is the leading candidate. Ayrault has backed Hollande since the 2011 socialist primary, so his fidelity is above suspicion.
Yet Ayrault still has several strikes against him that prevent him from being a slam-dunk choice. First, like Hollande, Ayrault has never served in government. It would be unprecedented, under the Fifth Republic, to have both a president and a prime minister who lacked prior ministerial experience. Second, Ayrault has an ethical cloud hanging over his head. In 1997, he received a suspended sentence and a 300,000 franc fine for “favoritism,” when it was discovered that he had granted a city printing contract to a businessmen with socialist connections without soliciting competitive bids. Ayrault claims that he received no campaign donations in return. Hollande’s electoral program commits him to “moralizing” French politics. Point 49 of his manifesto specifically says politicians condemned for corruption should be banned from office for ten years. While this does not strictly speaking disqualify Ayrault, Hollande would, if he appointed him, have to face charges that he was violating the spirit if not the letter of his campaign promises in one of his first important acts as president. Still: if this is the only blemish on Ayrault’s record after over thirty years in politics, he is not doing too badly. I don’t think it’s fatal to his chances. Ayrault remains, in my view, the favorite.
After Ayrault, the next most plausible option is Hollande’s rival from last year’s socialist primary, Martine Aubry. Aubry, who is 61, has much too offer as prime minister (for a more detailed portrait, see the post I wrote on her in the fall). She has twice held cabinet positions, under Pierre Bérégovoy and Lionel Jospin, who made her his de facto vice-prime minister. She has served over a decade as mayor of Lille (the country’s tenth largest city). She has, moreover, extensive experience with employment and welfare issues, matters that will be central to Hollande’s domestic agenda. Furthermore, she would balance out the new president ideologically: Hollande is a centrist, while Aubry is perhaps the most left-leaning of the party’s “elephants” (or leading figures). Naming her prime minister could placate the 11% who cast ballots for Jean-Luc Mélenchon in the first round. As the leader who negotiated the PS’s agreement with the Greens, which ensures them socialist support in sixty parliamentary districts in the upcoming legislative elections (in those districts, the PS will not run candidates against the Greens), she could, as prime minister, be instrumental in managing the resulting alliance (even if the Greens’ showing in round one was disappointing and bodes ill for June). Most intriguingly, she would be only the second woman under the Fifth Republic to serve as prime minister—the first since Édith Cresson (1991-1992). Appointing Aubry would underscore Hollande’s commitment to ensuring that French political parties are serious about giving equal representation to women.
The problem with Aubry is precisely that she is Hollande’s rival. Though she has publicly supported his candidacy since he beat her in the fall, she has privately derided Hollande as the embodiment of “la gauche molle”—the “soft” or “flabby” left. Is Hollande’s hour of victory really the best time for attracting attention to the PS’s internecine conflicts? Given her association with the thirty-five hour work week (which she enacted under Jospin), Aubry might also antagonize conservatives more than her party’s moderate members. Lastly, does Aubry really want to be prime minister? She is one of her party’s leading lights and finer minds, yet she has always betrayed a certain ambivalence towards power at its highest levels. It’s not clear that she has the craving for power, the need for adulation that drives politicians like Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, or Jacques Chirac. While undoubtedly a strong candidate for the job, the case for Aubry is overall less compelling than for Ayrault. Though I have seen nothing in the French press that mentions this as a possibility, I wonder if she would not be more useful at the helm of a major ministry—perhaps the ministry of finance (Bercy) itself.
The other contenders for the position seem considerably less likely than Ayrault or Aubry, but still deserve mentioning. One interesting choice would be Manuel Valls, the mayor of Evry, a Paris suburb with a large immigrant population. Valls was born Spanish, of Catalan stock. He ran against Hollande in the socialist primary, receiving only 6% of the vote. He then served as Hollande’s campaign spokesman during the general election. A Prime Minister Valls would represent a changing of the generational guard: at 50, he’s the youngest in the running. He also occupies an interesting place in the party, ideologically-speaking, as a leading spokesman of its right or “social-democratic” wing. He admires Clinton, Blair, and the German and Scandinavian models. His brand of socialism purports to be economically realistic, even as it strives for greater social justice. He has gone so far as to suggest that the party should change its name, on the grounds that “socialism” is an outdated nineteenth-century idea that has lost its relevance in the twenty-first century.
Partly because of his age, however, Valls has never run a ministry. Moreover, given Hollande’s centrism, the Aubry-Mélenchon crowd might grumble at a prime minister who is so openly aligned with the party’s ( social democratic or, worse, “social liberal”) right wing, which many see as partially responsible for the current economic crisis. And Valls might not have the stature to keep “elephants” like Fabius and Aubry in line, should they join the government. Were he, however, to be named to an important ministry (e.g., minister of urban or social affairs), Valls could be a strong candidate for becoming head of government should Hollande decide to switch prime ministers later in his term.
The most cerebral contender is undoubtedly Pierre Moscovici. He was born into a highly intellectual family: his father is the Romanian-born social psychologist Serge Moscovici and his mother is a prominent psychoanalyst (and a signatory of the famous “manifesto of the 121,” against the Algerian War). Moscovici studied economics before attending the ENA. Here, he was taught by an up-and-coming young economist to whom he attached his star: a certain Dominique Strauss-Kahn. Moscovici, who has held a number of cabinet positions, was closely allied to DSK and his social-democratic vision. Since DSK’s fall, however, he has endorsed Hollande wholeheartedly. Though ideologically a social democrat, Moscovic, now 54, has reflected on ways to fuse socialism with environmentalism, distinguishing him from the more “rightist” orientation of Valls.
Moscovici would, in short, be an intelligent prime minister who is politically moderate (yet not to the point he would alienate Mélenchon or the Greens), fluent in economics, knowledgeable of Europe, and possessed of considerable stature in his party. On paper, he is almost an ideal candidate for prime minister.
Last but not least is Laurent Fabius. Once upon a time, Fabius was the socialist party’s rising star. He was budget minister in Mitterrand’s first government. Then, in 1984, Mitterrand made him prime minister—at 37, he was the youngest man to hold the job under the Fifth Republic. Fabius was destined for great things—perhaps even the presidency—were it not for the fact that his tenure as prime minister was marred by the “contaminated blood” affair, in which his government was blamed for inadvertently disseminating the HIV virus through hemophiliac blood banks. At the time, Fabius was considered a poster child for his party’s modernizing, moderate wing. But his experience in government lead him to conclude that this is not what the French want, so he has since hewed to a more leftist orientation. Now, after years playing the party elder, there’s an outside chance he could become France’s answer to Jerry Brown, serving as both the youngest and (one of) the oldest men to hold the same job. While Fabius’ leftism is in sync with the times, it is also what separates him from Hollande: he and the president-elect split in 2005 over the European Constitutional Treaty, which Fabius opposed and Hollande supported. Hollande persuaded the PS to approve the treaty—only to watch France reject it. Yet if Fabius correctly divined the aspirations of the French electorate in 2005, he was mistaken in 2012: he is notorious for having remarked, with characteristic disdain: “Hollande, president? Are you dreaming?”
True, Fabius would bring intelligence and great experience to the prime-ministership. But it would look odd for Hollande—who campaigned on the slogan “change, now”—to appoint someone who was prime minister back in the mid-eighties. More importantly: the French, alas, have never loved Laurent Fabius. He would make a better foreign minister than prime minister.
There are a few other possibilities. Michel Sapin, a former finance minister and classmate of Hollande’s at the ENA, is considered an outside chance. There’s some buzz about Hollande naming his former partner (and mother of his four children), Ségolène Royal. This seems, however highly unlikely: not only would it create a circus-like distraction from the important issues of the day, but the kind of skills required for the job—levelheadedness, self-effacement, team-building—seem ill-suited to Royal’s personality. She has also expressed interest in running to for president of the National Assembly (constitutionally, France’s fourth-ranked position) if the socialists win the June parliamentary elections.
My predictions have not been good of late, but my guess is that Ayrault is the strongest contender to be Hollande’s first prime minister, with Aubry as a serious possibility and Moscovici as an interesting alternative. We’ll see next Tuesday.