French cabinet hopefuls share Francois Hollande’s pragmatic view of socialism

PARIS — The men and women who are elbowing for senior posts in Francois Hollande’s new French government reflect a range of political trajectories. But one thing they share is Hollande’s view of socialism as free-market social democracy — a pragmatic ideology in which nationalizations, clenched fists and the hammer and sickle are things of the past.

As a result, analysts here say, the policies that Hollande will follow when he takes over as president on Tuesday are unlikely to disrupt Europe’s political and economic systems or upset France’s relations with the United States. One of the first appointments Hollande granted Monday was with U.S. Ambassador Charles H. Rivkin; Hollande also pledged that his first trip will be to Germany, which is headed by the conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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Socialist Francois Hollande defeated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday to become France's next president. Hollande's election heralds a major shift in French policy.

Socialist Francois Hollande defeated conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy on Sunday to become France's next president. Hollande's election heralds a major shift in French policy.

The French Socialist Party has not always been that way. Francois Mitterrand’s election in 1981 was followed by a wave of nationalizations and the entry of Communist ministers into the government. But the economy tanked, and within three years, Mitterrand reversed course, re-privatizing state-owned industries and adopting a pro-NATO foreign policy that reassured even President Ronald Reagan.

That does not mean, the analysts caution, that things will stay as they were under outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy, a conservative whom Hollande accused of coddling the rich with tax breaks and lightening the social protection obligations of big business. Hollande’s first steps as president, for instance, will be to cut his and his ministers’ salaries by 30 percent, freeze gasoline prices, increase back-to-school subsidies for poor families and allow those who have worked for 41 years to retire at age 60.

During the campaign, Sarkozy denounced those measures as populism that France could ill afford amid an economic crisis. But they were major features of Hollande’s pitch, which sought to convince people that he would more fairly apportion the hardships brought on by tight times.

In the running

Pierre Moscovici, who managed Hollande’s campaign, said in a television appearance that the president will enact the measures immediately — by decree, because the National Assembly and the Senate are not in session pending legislative elections.

Moscovici, 54, a former European affairs minister, initially backed Dominique Strauss-Kahn for the Socialist presidential nomination. But when the International Monetary Fund chief got caught up in a sex-assault scandal and dropped out of the race, Moscovici fell in line behind Hollande. He has been mentioned as a possible prime minister, foreign minister or secretary general under Hollande.

Another figure mentioned for the prime minister’s post is Jean-Marc Ayrault, 62, the silver-haired mayor of Nantes, who has been steady-handed as head of the Socialist group in the National Assembly.

Among many others vying for Hollande’s favor is Manuel Valls, 49, who was communications director during the long presidential campaign and once described his political outlook as “Clintonian.” He reportedly has his sights set on becoming interior minister.

Laurent Fabius, 65, successively budget minister, industry minister and prime minister under Mitterrand, would like Hollande to name him foreign minister, according to reports from Paris, even though he once dismissed Hollande’s chances of becoming president with the equivalent of, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Martine Aubry, 61, the Socialist Party’s first secretary, also would like to become Hollande’s prime minister, the reports say, which would cap a long political career that included stints as labor minister and employment minister in the 1990s and an unsuccessful battle with Hollande last year for the Socialist presidential nomination.

Aubry has been singled out as the most doctrinaire of the top contenders. She is remembered as the one who brought France the much-criticized 35-hour workweek in the 1990s. During the nomination battle, she accused Hollande of espousing “soft socialism” in a career devoted to reconciling differences.

‘Cohabitation’ looms

The irony is that those stepping into their new ministries, and into the chauffeur-driven cars and often-luxurious apartments that come with them, will do so with only one-month leases. The two-round legislative elections set for June 10 and June 17 could — although this is seen as unlikely — produce a majority for Sarkozy’s conservative Union for a Popular Movement coalition.

In that case, Hollande would have to live with a hostile parliament — an uncomfortable situation, known here as “cohabitation,” that would force him to limit his ambitions.

With that in mind, Hollande and his Socialist Party lieutenants are expected to concentrate most of their energy on the legislative elections during their first weeks in office. When President Obama meets with Hollande at the White House before the Group of Eight summit May 18 at Camp David, the French leader may have more down-to-earth matters than world politics to discuss.

Historically, most French presidential elections have been followed by legislative elections giving a majority to the new president. But Mitterrand, who gave Hollande his start in politics, and, later, President Jacques Chirac had to live through awkward periods of cohabitation.

The Socialist Party’s legislative campaign also will bring up its relations with the Greens, who signed an electoral pact with Aubry before the presidential vote, and Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Left Front, a far-left alliance of Communists and disenchanted Socialists that garnered 11 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential election.

The Greens’ national secretary, Cecile Duflot, has been talked about as a possible minister, which would grease anti-right alliances in the legislative elections and help Hollande keep his pledge of sexual parity. But Melenchon and Pierre Laurent, the Communist Party secretary general, have said that they have no interest in becoming ministers, for which their chances were slim to none, anyway.

 
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