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France's new PM Ayrault most popular in 50 years

Text by Rachel HOLMAN

Latest update : 2012-05-30

It may seem a little premature to gauge France’s new Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault’s popularity, yet a recent poll has found that the premier is the most popular the country has seen in over 50 years.

France’s new Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault may have been in the job for less than two weeks, but according to a poll published on Sunday, he is already the country’s most popular premier in 50 years.

The poll, which was conducted by French newspaper the Journal du Dimanche and Ifop, an opinion and marketing research centre, found that Ayrault scored a 65 percent approval rating after a mere 11 days in office – higher than any other prime minister at the same point in time since 1959.

A long-time ally of the country’s new President François Hollande, the 62-year-old Ayrault was sworn into office on April 16.

Prime ministers of the past

France has had its fair share of popular and pariah-like prime ministers since the country’s current system of government, the Fifth Republic, was first founded in 1958.

Some, like Georges Pompidou and Jacques Chirac did well enough to move on to the presidency later on in their careers; while others, such as Ayrault’s predecessor François Fillon, have stood out for being consistently better liked than their president.

Others still, such as France’s first and only female prime minister, Edith Cresson, were intensely disliked by the general population. Cresson, whose popularity peaked at 25 percent during her first months in office, was compelled to step aside after less than a year in office.

More popular than the president

What’s more, Ayrault has kicked off his tenure as prime minister with greater support than Hollande. According to the poll, only 61 percent of those surveyed said they were “satisfied” with their new president.

While it is by no means the first time a prime minister has fared better than the president in popularity, James Shields, professor of French politics and modern history at the UK’s Aston University, argues that it does go against the norm.

“Presidents have generally enjoyed greater – and sometimes much greater – popularity than their prime ministers. This has usually been explained by the fact that they have a more elevated, ‘Olympian’ role than their prime minister, who is responsible for the day-to-day business of governing and finds it harder to escape blame when things go badly”, Shields told FRANCE 24.

Although Ayrault has only been in office a short time, his strong image may in fact be due to the steps he took soon after assuming the premiership.

“The prime minister has so far projected a good image – one of seriousness, competence and calm reliability. This goes down well with a French public in need of reassurance. He has appointed a gender-balanced government that has started by awarding itself a pay cut of 30 percent for all ministers and the president too.

"At a time of deep cynicism about politicians, such a measure – even if symbolic – gives a strong message that, in these hard-pressed times, ministers too must take their share of sacrifice”, Shields said.

The move to reduce the president’s and ministerial salaries contrasts deeply with one of former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s first acts as president in 2007, when he increased his own salary by 170 percent to match that of his prime minister. The rise in salary helped contribute to the ex-president’s “bling-bling” image, and was one of the most controversial acts of his term. Sarkozy recently justified his decision by saying it was done in the name of “transparency”.

Yet considering some of the challenges Ayrault’s government faces in the coming months, chief among them employment and the economy, Shields said it is too early to tell whether the prime minister’s popularity is a sign of more to come or just beginner’s luck.

“The real test comes when electoral promises have to be translated into government policy – and that is a test the new prime minister is still very far from having passed”, he said.

Date created : 2012-05-28


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