Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: A “Normal” Colleague for a “Normal” President

For his first act as President of France, François Hollande named his prime minister and chief of government on Tuesday. He chose Jean-Marc Ayrault, 62, a close friend and long-time ally. Although he has been a familiar face within the Socialist Party for many years, he was not well-known beyond a close circle of politicians, making him a fresh figure to many French citizens.

Born on January 25, 1950 in the town of Maulevrier, Ayrault was originally a German teacher but has had a long career in politics. The son of a textile factory worker and a dressmaker, he entered the political arena when he was 26. He was elected mayor of Saint-Herblain in 1977 and maintained that post for the next eleven years. His career then accelerated when he became a deputy for the National Assembly in 1986 and then the Mayor of Nantes when he was 39. This last position brought him popularity, as he was credited as the master behind the renewal of this western French city. He has never lost an election, and was president of the Parti Socialiste (PS) in the National Assembly for many years. Although he originally supported many extreme left policies, he gradually became a proponent of a more pragmatic and moderate form of socialism.

Hollande and Ayrault have worked hand-in-hand since the period of “cohabitation”, when the socialist Lionel Jospin was Prime Minister during the presidency of Jacques Chirac. During the socialist “disaster” of 2002, Lionel Jospin, the favored left candidate, did not win enough votes to qualify for the second round, leaving two right wing candidates in the final election: Jacques Chirac and Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen is an far-right nationalist of the Front Nationale (FN) and father of Marine Le Pen, this year’s FN candidate. Hollande and Ayrault worked together to put new life into the left after 2002. In fact, many expected that François Hollande would choose Ayrault as the Special Adviser during the campaign, a liaison between François Hollande and the other European left-wing parties.

Though he has never been a Minister, his ability to speak German, his contacts in Europe, and his well-known skills in consensus building should all prove to be helpful in Hollande’s goal of a fresh start to the French and German relations. Hollande’s other main choice was Martine Aubry, a well-know member of the PS in France who happened to be Hollande’s main opponent during the party’s presidential primaries.

Doubts and criticisms arose from the moment Ayrault was approached to become Prime Minister. Many denounced his lack of charisma, his professorial attitudes in public, his extreme prudence and tendency to favor compromise. Many were and still are worried that he, like François Hollande, might be too “normal” for the struggles to come.

Additionally, some members of the center-right party, Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) consider Ayrault’s nomination as Hollande’s first betrayal of his promises. Indeed, during the campaign he attacked the several scandals that stained Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency, many involving the members of Sarkozy’s cabinet. Hollande promised that he would not work with anyone convicted of a crime. However, 15 years ago Jean-Marc Ayrault received a six-month suspended sentence and a fine of approximately 4,500 euros for “favoritism” when he was Mayor of Nantes. The new Prime Minister responded to these criticisms, asserting that his “personal integrity has never been questioned” and had already taken responsibility for what had happened.

Ayrault announced the composition of the new French government on May 16th.

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