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French president names ‘top cop’ as new PM

The cabinet reshuffle came after the ruling Socialists lost in local elections

Published: Updated:

French President Francois Hollande appointed on Monday Interior Minister Manuel Valls to be his new prime minister, after Jean-Marc Ayrault resigned over local election loss.

The photogenic 51-year-old, naturalized son of a Spanish immigrant, is one the youngest ministers in Hollande's cabinet and an expert in political communication, according to Reuters.

He will need those skills to sell the president's U-turn to more business-friendly policies and impose discipline in place of cacophony.

His consistently high approval ratings as the nation's tough-talking "top cop" have contrasted with the record low poll ratings suffered by the president.

Addressing the country in a short televised speech, Hollande said a key objective for the new government would be pursuing the so-called “responsibility pact” to lower employers’ costs in order to spur job creation.

But in a new move, he also said he would lower taxes and worker contributions and said France would have to persuade EU partners to take into account its efforts to boost the economy when examining its commitments to Brussels.

Disappointment with the Socialists’ handling of the economy drove many voters to conservative or anti-immigrant far-right candidates in the elections Sunday and Hollande hopes the reshuffle will boost the government’s popularity.

Ayrault conceded that the elections were “a defeat for the government.” The administration has failed to fulfill its promises to cut France’s more than 10 percent unemployment and boost growth, which was just 0.3 percent last year, according to figures released Monday.

Record-low voter turnout and the poor showing for Socialist candidates “really sends a message to Hollande that he has to change his Cabinet, he has to reshuffle,” said Hall Gardner, professor of politics at the American University of Paris.

Changes are especially expected in the Finance Ministry, which has scared away investors with high and complex taxes and struggled to find solutions to chronic low growth and growing joblessness.

Hollande is expected to stick to a grand plan for a payroll tax cut aimed at creating jobs - even though it also involves unpopular spending cuts.

The biggest winners in Sunday’s vote were candidates from the far right National Front, who won mayoral races in 12 towns and took 1,546 city and town council seats, the party said Monday. That’s less than some Socialists had feared, but still a record-high number for the party, whose leader Marine Le Pen has tried to soften its xenophobic image and tapped into widespread discontent with mainstream politics.

Meanwhile, bad economic news keeps coming. The state statistics agency said Monday that the deficit shrank less than expected last year - prompting a rebuke from the EU economy commissioner - and debt continued to grow to 93.5 percent of GDP.

The French economy avoided sinking into a new recession, growing 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter, but overall prospects for growth are slow.

[With Reuters]