Attack on the 35-hour week may mean French PM not working at all

Jean-Marc Ayrault plunges government into crisis by challenging Socialist article of faith

Paris

To his dismay, President François Hollande has already succeeded in returning French government to "normality".

The curse which once made the Prime Minister's office the most thankless job in French politics has returned to haunt Mr Hollande's choice for the post, Jean-Marc Ayrault.

After five accident-prone months, Mr Ayrault plunged into a self-made crisis this week by inadvertently questioning an article of his own Socialist party's faith – the 35-hour working week. In an interview with newspaper readers, designed to repair his reputation for being muddled and out-of-touch, the Prime Minister said a return to a 39-hour week was "not a taboo subject".

He was corrected by his own ministerial colleagues and forced to put out a statement admitting he had misspoken. Unfortunately, Mr Ayrault, 62, misspoke again, appearing to say the 35-hour week, introduced by a Socialist government 12 years ago, was just one of "the many problems" with the economy.

Government sources suggest Mr Ayrault had been trying to appear like a reasonable and open-minded man. There was no question of repealing the 35-hour week, which remains broadly popular with both middle- and working-class voters.

President Hollande was reported to have reacted to the performance of his old friend with a "certain stupefaction". Opposition politicians were jubilant. Senior figures in the Socialist-Green coalition government said Mr Ayrault would survive but only because a prime minister could not be fired after five months.

French newspaper commentators suggested that Mr Ayrault might be on the "slippery slope" taken by Edith Cresson, who was dismissed as Prime Minister after 11 months in 1991-2 after a series of mishaps and misjudgements.

Since the Fifth Republic was created half a century ago, it has been the role of the prime minister to run day-to-day government and to take the blame for everything that goes wrong. President Nicolas Sarkozy reversed that by, in effect, running the government himself. His Prime Minister, François Fillon, remained popular while Mr Sarkozy's ratings plunged.

Mr Hollande, who promised to be a "normal" president, has gone back to the old pattern of allowing the prime minister to conduct day-to-day business. Mr Ayrault's popularity has plunged from just over 60 per cent in early June to the mid-40s.

However, President Hollande's ratings have also crashed. French voters are unhappy with what they see as a cumbersome and muddled response to a deepening economic crisis.

Supporters of Mr Ayrault admit he has taken time to assert his authority. He had previously held no government position. He was Mayor of Nantes in western France and leader of the Socialist opposition in the national assembly.

Mr Ayrault, who comes from a rural working-class background, did not attend the usual administrative finishing schools of the French elite. He is said to blame the divisions within his cabinet on the snobbery of some ministers who regard him as a provincial upstart.

Speculation is already rife about possible successors. An obvious candidate would be Martine Aubry, the former Socialist party leader and mother of the 35-hour week, who was pointedly overlooked by President Hollande in the spring.

A more likely candidate would be the Interior Minister, Manuel Valls – one of the few members of the Ayrault cabinet to rise in popularity.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Mid Weight

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To support their continued grow...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Data Specialist

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are the go-to company for ...

Recruitment Genius: Search Marketing Specialist - PPC / SEO

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's leadin...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This caravan dealership are currently recruiti...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test