President Francois Hollande, reeling from calamitous results in local elections, fired his Prime Minister yesterday to try to give a fresh start to his failing presidency.
In a live TV broadcast, Hollande announced that he had asked the ambitious, energetic, Spanish-born Interior Minister, Manuel Valls, 52, to form a new government. He paid tribute to the "courage" and "abnegation" of the deposed Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault.
The choice is a risky one. Left-wing voters failed to vote in droves, partly because they are furious that Hollande made a sharp right turn in economic policy in January.
By choosing Valls, from the reformist right wing of the Parti Socialiste, Hollande signalled that there would be no going back.
The President said that he had given Valls three missions: to restore the competitiveness of the French economy; to ensure social justice for poorer citizens; and to reduce taxes for ordinary people by 2017.
Hollande said he had "heard the message" of the voters and "accepted entire responsibility" for the "slow pace of reform" of the Ayrault government. "But my duty is to act in the long-term interest of our great country," he said.
The President's Socialist Party lost 155 towns in the second round of municipal elections, as voters punished him for two stumbling years in the Elysee Palace and his failure to deliver his promise to halt the rising tide of unemployment. Most of the lost towns swung to the centre-right but Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front captured 11 town halls - by far its biggest ever beach-head in local government.
Valls' plain language and no-nonsense approach to crime and immigration has impressed centrist voters but annoyed many people on the left of the Socialist Party. His youthful manner, tough image and ambition have led some French political commentators to describe him as a "Nicolas Sarkozy" of the left.
The sacrificial firing of the PM by the President is a long tradition in the French Fifth Republic (post 1958). It gives the President a chance, in theory, to wipe the slate clean and start again. But Hollande will push ahead with plans to make 50 billion in budget cuts this year and his proposal to lighten the payroll tax burden on employers to create jobs. Details will be announced in the next two weeks.