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Can new French Prime Minister Valls beef up Hollande’s government?

France’s new prime minister has a reputation for strength and decisiveness, characteristics seen as lacking in President Hollande’s unpopular administration.

PARIS  France’s new Prime Minister Manuel Valls, a tough-talking polarizing figure, is a risky choice for President François Hollande.

But Mr. Valls’ appeal is stronger than any controversy he has sparked while serving as interior minister with a well earned reputation as France’s “top cop.” In fact, Valls effuses exactly what the French say their current leadership is lacking: strength and decisiveness.

Mr. Hollande is the country’s least popular president in modern history, a fact underscored by his Socialist party’s bruising municipal elections over the weekend. That’s because voters say he has repeatedly failed to follow through on the promises he’s made in two years as president.

But what voters most blame him for is his tentativeness as the nation’s head-of-state. With his cabinet reshuffle, Hollande has promised the nation a new “combat government.”

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“The French do expect from their head of government a strong hand at the helm,” says Steven Ekovich, a foreign policy expert at the American University of Paris. “All presidents up until Hollande have adhered to the image that the French expect.”

France gives more powers to its president than American democracy would tolerate. Strong presidents have their foundation in the French monarchy. The modern authority of the president was constitutionally established by Charles de Gaulle, in the 1958 constitution of the Fifth Republic.

If the late de Gaulle epitomizes the French expectation of a strong leader, Hollande has been the opposite. The highlight of his presidency so far was a firm decision to send troops to Mali in early 2013 – which pollsters attribute to a rare display of resoluteness.

Valls could give voters a new sense of a presidency in charge. “Valls [has] the allure of someone who can bring order to things,” Mr. Ekovich says.

The new prime minister is an unapologetic supporter of the ban on full-face veils in French public life and has taken hardline positions on evicting Roma from illegal camps. He has cracked down on youth crime and sent in riot police to quell gang violence in the port town Marseille.

While Valls’ moves have been viewed warily in some corners, he remains the nation’s most popular politician. In a BVA poll released today, carried out before the reshuffle, voters said of all the ministers they’d like to see remain in office, Valls tops the list.

In a poll BVA carried out specifically about Valls last October, respondents described him with the words “courageous,” “competent,” “having deep convictions,” and “convincing.” But “authoritarian” and “impulsive” were also commonly mentioned.  

His biggest risk to Hollande, however, is political. Within the Socialist Party, Valls is viewed as a maverick, having attacked France’s 35-hour work week. Hollande is already under attack within his party with his announcement in January to adopt more business-friendly policies.

As an editorial in today’s right-leaning Figaro puts it: “The new Socialist prime minister has a singular particularity: he has forged his identity, and without doubt his popularity, by regularly criticizing the Social Party.”

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