The French left-wing firebrand who forced the Socialist reshuffle

Thomas Samson, AFP | Arnaud Montebourg
4 min

Arnaud Montebourg, whose open criticism of the Socialist government’s failure to create growth led to Monday’s announcement of a major cabinet reshuffle, is no stranger to controversy.


Montebourg told reporters on Monday that he would not seek a position in the new government, lashing out again at the government's policies in some of his final remarks as economy minister.

"The entire world is urging us – even begging us – to end these absurd austerity policies that are plunging the eurozone into an economic slowdown,'' he said in a statement to the press.

"My responsibility as economy minister is to tell the truth, and observe ... that not only are these austerity policies not working, but they are also unfair."

The 51-year-old sparked fresh controversy on Sunday when he said that he wanted to see a "major shift" in France's economic policy, in comments seen as an unacceptable challenge to French President François Hollande and Prime Minister Valls.

Montebourg, who is minister for the economy and industrial renewal, also slammed France’s staunch ally Germany, saying France was "trapped in an austerity policy imposed across Europe" by Berlin.

It is not the first time Montebourg has taken a major swipe at France’s neighbours and the European Union, which he has said exerts “too much pressure on democratically elected governments” and fuels the rise of far-right parties.

Following his appointment as industrial renewal minister in May 2012, Montebourg attacked European Commission head José Manuel Barroso, calling him the “fuel of the National Front” – France's far-right party – and said Barroso was responsible for the political “paralysis” imposed by the EU structure.

Montebourg angers industry leaders

Montebourg’s ministerial portfolio was widened to include the economy in April after a reshuffle forced on the government by bad results in local elections. The move placed him in an uncomfortable relationship with pro-austerity Finance Minister Michel Sapin.

Before that, he became embroiled in a spat with the head of US tyremaker Titan, who declined Montebourg's invitation to invest in a loss-making tyre plant in France by saying the French workforce "gets paid high wages but only works three hours".

Montebourg retorted: "Your extremist insults display a perfect ignorance of what our country is about," adding that he would "inspect your tyre imports with a redoubled zeal".

He also clashed with Indian-born steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, saying his firm ArcelorMittal, the world's top steelmaker, was blackmailing France and was "no longer welcome” in the country, causing outrage in business circles.

The latest reshuffle comes at a time when France is mired in a stubbornly slow economic recovery and facing high unemployment.

The central bank warned this month that Hollande had no hope of reaching his target of 1.0 percent growth for 2014.

The French economy has been stagnant for the past six months and the government was forced to halve its growth forecast to 0.5 percent for this year.

Hollande pins hopes on 'Responsibility Pact'

Both Hollande and Valls say the answer is their so-called Responsibility Pact that offers businesses tax breaks of some €40 billion in exchange for a pledge by companies to create 500,000 jobs over three years.

Hollande plans to finance this with €50 billion in spending cuts, but the plan has angered those on the left of the party – like Montebourg – who argue that the focus should be on cutting taxes to boost consumer spending power.

Tough-talking former interior minister Valls, who veers more towards the centre, is also deeply unpopular with some Socialists.

Two Green ministers left the government when Valls was appointed in March after the Socialists' humiliation in local elections.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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