The Ayrault Government: A Preliminary Analysis

Lemas Announces the Government

Nearly three and half hours behind schedule, the Elysée’s new Secretary-General, Pierre-René Lemas, announced, standing on the steps of the presidential palace, the composition of the first Ayrault government. A chaud, here are a few off-the-cuff reactions:

The new socialist government is decidedly moderate. It represents the triumph of Parti socialist’s right or centrist currents and is resolutely social democratic. The factions loyal to President Hollande himself, as well as Ségolène Royal in 2007 and the once important Dominique Strauss-Kahn, have prevailed. This is evident first of all in the choice of Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault himself, who interestingly combines a traditional socialist trajectory (rural working-class background, employment as a public school teacher, youthful activism, and municipal politics) with a pragmatic, centrist outlook (with the added bonus of German language skills). The “Hollandais” did especially well: the new president’s ENA classmate Michel Sapin was given the labor ministry, his campaign spokesman Manuel Valls was rewarded with “Place Beauvau” (the interior ministry), and loyalists Jean-Yves Le Drian and Sebastien Le Foll landed defense and agriculture, respectively. Though his career is finished (and his legal troubles increasing by the day), Dominique Strauss-Kahn still managed to leave his mark on the new government: his former student and leading social democrat Pierre Moscovici will take over the finance ministry, somewhat surprisingly edging out Michel Sapin, a Hollandais who had the job back in the nineties.

Pierre Moscovici (Finance)

Meanwhile, the party’s left is underrepresented. The big surprise, announced earlier in the day, was Martine Aubry’s decision to sit out this government. She apparently was offered a “ministry of intelligence,” marrying the culture and education portfolios. But she didn’t want to return to government simply to be number two (a rank she had already been given by Lionel Jospin in 1997). Her absence serves Hollande—who may have deliberately made her an offer that she could very easily refuse—in two ways: first, a more moderate government will please the markets and Germany; and second, he can spare himself the bickering to which the party’s “elephants” (as its dominant figures are called) are prone. From what I can tell, few Aubry supporters made it into government. One minor exception is Benoît Hamon, the PS’s spokesman, who was made junior minister for the “solidarity economy.”

That said, the Ayrault government acknowledges the growing importance of the French left’s “anti-Europe” constituency. For instance, the Quai d’Orsay (foreign affairs) went to Laurent Fabius (the former prime minister and finance minister), who opposed the adoption of the European constitutional treaty in 2005. And the ministry of industry—renamed “ministry of production recovery”—goes to Arnaud Montebourg, who led a spirited challenge against Hollande in the socialist primary by touting his idea of “deglobalization.” Neither is much of an ideologue. Rather, their reservations about Europe result from the perception that the EU is a Trojan horse for neoliberalism, which threatens the French social model. They are not calling for a retreat from the euro or advocating nationalist policies. They could, however, put some pressure on Hollande to resist the tendency of past socialist governments to provide knee-jerk support for the expansion of the European Union (though in light of the Eurozone crisis, further integration is for now off the agenda). They favor a Europe that will be based on the defense of social standards and growth promotion rather than free markets and fighting inflation.

Christiane Taubira (Justice)

A few morsels were thrown to some of the PS’s traditional allies. Christiane Taubira of the Parti radical de gauche (PRG), or left radicals (who are actually centrist), received the justice ministry. Her party has been a junior partner of every socialist government since 1981. The Green Cécile Duflot has also joined the government, as minister of housing and territorial equality.

At the same time, Hollande has honored his commitment to gender parity. The government consists of 34 ministers (including junior ministers). If I’m counting correctly, exactly half—17—are women. Few of the party’s most prominent female figures, however, were included. Aubry opted out. Ségolène Royal aspires to win the presidency of the National Assembly after parliamentary elections in June. That said, there are some interesting newcomers. Christiane Taubira, who is from French Guyana and ran for president in 2002, is justice minister. Her appointment is one of the new government’s biggest surprises, as she is something of an unknown quantity. Taubira also brings some diversity to the government: I believe that she is the highest-ranking black and Caribbean to have held a ministry in France.

Aurélie Filippetti (Culture)

Two of the most important women to watch are Marisol Touraine and Aurélie Filippetti. Touraine was given Aubry’s old position, the social affairs ministry. She will play a major role when in rescinding aspects of the previous government’s retirement reform. Filippetti, a former Green who is now, at 38, one of the PS’s rising stars, will head up the culture ministry.

Even so, many of the government’s women have been placed lower on the list, i.e., lower in rank and stature. The 34 year old Moroccan-born Najat Vallaud-Belkacem has been named minister of women’s rights and government spokesperson. The question now is whether this new position will actually get a budget and civil servants. The 38 year old Korean-born énarque Fleur Péllerin has been named junior minister for the digital economy. These positions could become stepping stones to bigger and better things. Alternatively, they could prove to be largely symbolic gestures, if, for instance, these young ministers are summarily dismissed when the going gets tough.

In many respects, Jospin’s first government, in which a number of top-ranked ministries went to women (Aubry, Elisabeth Guigou, Catherine Trautmann, and Dominque Voynet), gave women more real authority.  Part of the problem is that the socialists have been out of government for a decade. Consequently, the ranks of experienced politicians are thinner than in 1997 (when the PS had been in government for eleven of the previous sixteen years). Added to this is the fact that, for personal reasons, Hollande could not easily call upon two of the party’s most prominent figures, Aubry and Royal. One could accuse Hollande of selling women short. Still, the point of gender parity, as I see it, is to jump start the process of gender equality by ensuring women are given political experience. This way, down the line, the argument that “there are not enough qualified women” becomes bogus. On balance, Hollande has proven reasonably progressive so far on the issue of gender parity.

Vincent Peillon’s Thesis

To revert briefly to my day job as a professor of European thought, I would point out that the new government includes a number of interesting intellectuals. The new education minister, Vincent Peillon, is, in addition to being a socialist politician, a philosopher by training. He wrote a thesis and several books on the phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He is particularly interested in the tradition of republican socialism: he has authored essays on Jean Jaurès and my old friend Pierre Leroux (to whom I devoted a chapter of my dissertation). Peillon’s interest in these figures is tied, moreover, to the fact that they all embrace a kind of secular spirituality. This explains the new education minister’s interest in Ferdinand Buisson, the Third-Republican founder of the idea of a “secular faith” (foi laïque). It will be interesting to see if Peillon can translate his philosophical views on education and laïcité (French secularism) into concrete policy proposals.

A few other tidbits about intellectuals in the new government: The new minister of social affairs, Marisol Touraine, is the daughter of one of France’s great sociologists, Alain Touraine, the theorist of “new social movements” who was once close to Michel Rocard and the “second left.”  The new culture minister, Aurélie Filippetti, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants and the daughter of a communist miner from Lorraine, wrote a well regarded novel entitled “The Last Days of the Working Class” (Les derniers jours de la classe ouvrière). She has also been romantically involved with the French economist Thomas Piketty, whose studies of income inequality in the US (along with Emmanuel Saez), provided the intellectual ammunition for the Occupy movement, and have even influenced the politics of the US Democratic Party and Obama administration, as it prepares to take on Mitt Romney in the fall.

Overrepresented?

Finally, is it just me, or does this government have a lot of Bretons in it? I count: Jean-Marc Ayrault himself, along with Hamon, Le Drian, and Stéphane Le Foll. Is this the French answer to the Scots’ lock on New Labor?

The Ayrault government is, in sum, a moderate, social democratic government. While it is based on some coalition-building and faction-pleasing, it is more than anything a government that is personally loyal to the new president. This government rewards experience and long résumés (Fabius, Moscovici, and Sapin), but has also offered opportunities to fresh talent, ranging from the soon-to-be-not-so-young (Valls, Peillon, and Montebourg) to the mid-thirties crowd (Duflot, Filippetti, and Péllerin). It does, however, reflect a political context in which Hollande has been pushed further to the left than he is naturally inclined, as the presence of left Eurosceptics and critics of globalization attests.

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One response to “The Ayrault Government: A Preliminary Analysis

  1. I wonder what Benoît Hamon is going to do for ESS. Will his policies only be based on the big “mutuelles”, like some banks or insurance companies, or will he bolster real “cooperatives” such as those I keep craving for on my blog.
    Il this occurred, it would be a major step towards an alternative economic system. As what I call “libéral totalitarisme”( “libéral” just like “radical” are somehow French faux-amis words!) or Market Dictatorship” is unable to provide everyone with decent jobs, why not try another way? All the more so as examples are already available.

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