Thursday, 17 May 2012

Hollande's choice of Ayrault for PM was a 'normal' one

'We are the Champions my (normal) Friend"
Few people outside of France had heard of Jean-Marc Ayrault before he was appointed as Prime minister by the newly-elected and self-styled 'normal' president, François Hollande. Indeed, he was hardly a household name even here in France. So how and why did this relatively discreet socialist end up as the second most powerful man in France?

Ayrault was born to working-class parents 61 years ago and was educated in the state school system before obtaining a degree in German and becoming a German teacher. Politics soon beckoned however, and he joined the Socialist party in 1971. Being elected as Mayor of Saint-Herblain in 1977 meant that he was the youngest mayor, at 27, of any town with a population of over 30,000, and it was was onwards and upwards from then on.

His work as mayor and as a regional councillor for the Loire-Atlantique region was well appreciated and that made it inevitable that he would eventually be selected as a parliamentary candidate. And so it was that he became the Deputé for Loire-Atlantique in 1986 before going on to be re-elected four times. He was also elected four times as Mayor of Nantes, starting in 1989. Perhaps his biggest achievement however was being chosen as President of the Socialist parliamentary group in 1997, and he remained in this post until Hollande appointed him as Prime minister two days ago.

Although Ayrault's career path had always followed a steady and upwards trajectory, he was hardly a political meteorite, and the French public were largely unaware of his activities. This is because he always remained faithful to his region and city, never actively looking to get himself parachuted into, say, a seat in Paris, where he would have been more exposed to the media. Nor did he ever push noisily for the party leadership. At the same time his relative discretion in a party which has always been characterised by noisy and nasty internecine spats ensured that he remained largely hidden from public scrutiny.

All of which explains why Ayrault's name was almost never to be seen in political popularity polls, and it's also why he never figured in polls which asked the public to choose a Socialist prime minister in the event that Holland would win the election. And even after Hollande's election, when Holland aides began leaking Ayrault's name as a possible contender, he was far from being the public's choice, probably because so little was known about him compared to the favourites - Martine Aubry, Manuel Valls and Laurent Fabius.

What the public and the press were unaware of however, was that Hollande was not looking for a popular figure to become Prime minister. He wanted a centre-leftist like himself, a man capable of a consensual approach, and Ayrault is exactly that, a hard-working party workhorse who has adopted a docile centre-left line since he was elected mayor for the first time. He also supported Hollande unfailingly during the campaign. All three favourites were eliminated because none of them are naturally consensual, Valls being to far to the right, Aubry too far to the left, and Fabius too much of a maverick, and none of them could be trusted to implement Hollande's wishes down to the last letter.

In choosing Jean-Marc Ayrault, Hollande has chosen a reassuring and uncontroversial figure, and that is essential to the policy line he will adopt for the upcoming legislative elections. It is no means a given that the Socialists will win, but Ayrault, as well as being someone who will not rock the boat or cause controversy, is also someone who could appeal to centrists such as Bayrou supporters. His relative modesty will be needed to persuade voters that the tandem he represents with Hollande shall be a 'normal' one which is capable of getting down to work without being distracted by petty squabbles or controversial outbursts.

After five years of Sarkozy's bling-bling wrecking-ball style, Hollande is striving to come across as a 'normal' president, with a 'normal' Prime minister, and that, after all, is not only quite 'normal', it could also prove to be very effective.

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