France's Hollande seen reshuffling cabinet after local poll rout
PARIS - Agence France-Presse
Electoral staff members prepare to empty a ballot box to count the votes following the second round of the French municipal elections, on March 30, 2014 in Clermont-Ferrand, central France. AFP PhotoPresident Francois Hollande will make a televised statement on his government as early as Monday, a close ally said, after a local poll drubbing for his party handed the far-right victory in a record number of French towns.
Speculation about a cabinet reshuffle grew as Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault acknowledged he and his ministers bore the blame for the Socialists' Sunday defeat, which also saw some 150 towns swing to the centre-right main opposition UMP party.
"There's a statement by the president in the pipeline for Monday .. The president will make a statement on television, that is certain," Francois Rebsamen, a Socialist senator and long-time Hollande ally, told Reuters.
"I don't see how there won't be a major reshuffle," he said of a government which polls show the French do not trust to turn around unemployment of more than 10 percent.
There was no immediate confirmation from Hollande's office.
Facing the lowest popularity levels of any president in France's 56-year-old Fifth Republic, the Socialist changed tack earlier this year towards a more pro-business stance aimed at spurring investment and jobs through corporate charge cuts.
Hollande has said the mid-April vote in parliament on the "responsibility pact" is also a vote of confidence in his government.
But questions grew over whether he would hold a reformist stance after senior Socialists said the message from the vote was that the government must show evidence of "social justice", notably by helping low-income earners.
"There was a clear need that came through for a message of social justice and not just talking about the economy or public finances ... but more about solidarity," Culture Minister Aurelie Filippetti told France Info radio.
No policy moves were mentioned publicly, but government sources said ahead of the weekend vote that one option was a tax break for low-income households.
That would in turn raise questions among EU partners about whether France could keep a promise to bring its public deficit below 3 percent of output next year. Data released on Monday showed it was 4.3 percent in 2013, above its 4.1 percent target.
Provisional results from Sunday's voting showed the anti-EU National Front party of Marine Le Pen taking control of 11 towns across the country plus one district in Marseille, surpassing a past record in the 1990s when it ruled in four towns.
"Punishment," read a front-page headline in the left-leaning Liberation newspaper.
While Hollande himself will remain in power, the question is whether he will replace Ayrault, whose government has been accused of amateurism and of being paralysed by policy splits.
"There is no getting away from it: this vote is a defeat for the government ... and I take my part of the blame," Ayrault told national TV late on Sunday.
The National Front's wins were largely in the south, which has a tradition of anti-immigrant feeling, but it also took power in northern and eastern districts suffering from France's industrial decline.
The FN's victories included the towns of Beziers, Le Pontet, Frejus, Beaucaire, Le Luc, Camaret-sur-Aigues and Cogolin in the south, and Villers-Cotteret and Hayange in the north. It had already made a breakthrough in last week's first round by winning power in the northern town of Henin-Beaumont.
"This result is proof that we can win on a grand scale," Le Pen told BFM TV.
Referring to European parliament elections due in late May, she added: "I'm going to fight to help the French people regain a sense of freedom... I think we can end up in the lead."
The FN now has a fresh chance to show it can be trusted with power after its attempts to run towns in the 1990s were widely judged to have exposed its failings, hurting its electoral fortunes for years afterwards.
Presidential aides said Hollande was due to see both Ayrault and centrist Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who polls show is the favourite of most French to take the premiership, during a busy day of closed-door consultations at his Elysee Palace.
In some consolation for Hollande, Socialists retained control of Paris city hall, with their candidate Anne Hidalgo due to become the first female mayor there.
But they were set to cede power in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Quimper. The conservative UMP meanwhile saw off a challenge to its rule in the port of Marseille, although the FN won in the city's seventh district.