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France's Hollande to announce government shake-up

Thursday, February 11, 2016 - 19:47
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France's deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande is expected to announce a government reshuffle Thursday as he seeks fresh political momentum ahead of a run for a second term in office in 2017.

[PARIS] France's deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande is expected to announce a government reshuffle Thursday as he seeks fresh political momentum ahead of a run for a second term in office in 2017.

Top of his list of priorities will be to name a new foreign minister after the veteran Laurent Fabius bowed out of politics to take up a position at the country's Constitutional Council.

Mr Hollande, whose popularity has once again plunged after a brief surge in the wake of the November jihadist attacks in Paris, will also be looking to cabinet choices that will widen his voter base with just 15 months to go until he seeks re-election.

Mr Hollande "must increase his political base at all costs", said a source close to the president, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We can't face a presidential election without a Socialist family rallied behind their candidate and without the ecologists," said a source close to the president.

France's Greens Party (EELV) refused to take part in government in 2014 after Manuel Valls - considered to be on the right of the Socialist Party - was named prime minister, and have been divided ever since over whether they should return to the fold.

The outspoken Valls is expected to retain his position - making the task of finding an ecologist happy to work with him all the more complex.

His predecessor Jean-Marc Ayrault, 66, is tipped to return to government as foreign minister.

Mr Ayrault, a former prime minister, is a fluent German speaker and his understanding of the language and culture will be seen as an advantage in dealing with Berlin and the most pressing issues facing the European Union, such as the migration crisis.

Mr Hollande is also said to be considering Segolene Royal, the high-profile environment minister and his ex-partner, for foreign minister.

The 61-year-old Hollande, elected in 2012, has had a torrid first term, as his country has faced record unemployment, a stagnating economy and its worst-ever terror attacks.

He already carried out a major government shake-up in 2014 after the Socialists took a drubbing in municipal elections.

Regional elections at the end of 2015 did not go much better, with the centre-right Republicans of former president Nicolas Sarkozy coming out in front.

The most unpopular French president in history, Mr Hollande saw his star rise after the jihadist attacks against Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a Jewish supermarket in January 2015.

It rose again after he took a tough line on security following the attacks by gunmen and suicide bombers that killed 130 people in Paris in November.

However this time his rise was short-lived, as praise for his post-attacks approach quickly turned to criticism both from within his own party and the conservative opposition.

Efforts to enshrine tough new security measures into the constitution, and a hotly contested reform to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality, have been deeply divisive.

Many among Mr Hollande's Socialist Party see this as yet another shift to the right, and former justice minister Christine Taubira was so opposed to the nationality measure that she quit in January.

Efforts to kickstart a flagging economy with a raft of reforms last year led to a similar criticism of a shift in ideology, with a rebellious fringe of the Socialists accusing the Valls government of being too pro-business.

The dissent in the corridors of power has left voters cold, with an opinion poll by the Liberation newspaper published this week showing some 75 per cent of French people are opposed to Mr Hollande being re-elected.

Record unemployment figures of about 10 per cent are also haunting Mr Hollande, who vowed at the start of his mandate that he would not run again if he failed to improve the jobless rate.

In another blow to Mr Hollande's hopes to unite the left ahead of the 2017 election, the leader of the radical Left Party, Jean-Luc Melenchon, who won 11 per cent of votes in 2012, announced Wednesday he would run for president.

"I don't think this is convenient for the left or the ecologists," said government spokesman Stephane Le Foll.

AFP