French PM Valls steps down to focus on presidential election

Bernard Cazeneuve takes over as prime minister of France. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
Bernard Cazeneuve takes over as prime minister of France. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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French prime minister Manuel Valls stepped down yesterday to focus on running for president in next year’s election and was replaced by interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve, a man who embodies the fight against Islamic extremism.

Mr Valls resigned a day after announcing his candidacy in the wake of French president François Hollande’s decision not to run for a second term.

Mr Valls said: “I want to give everything for France.

“My candidacy is one of conciliation, of reconciliation. I have a responsibility today to unite.”

He hopes to unite Socialists and give the left a chance to stay at the Elysee Palace despite current opinion polls suggesting the second round of the April-May election could pit Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, against conservative François Fillon.

Mr Cazeneuve, 53, is a close ally of Mr Hollande and became a popular figure as the champion of measures tackling extremism.

Mr Cazeneuve, appointed interior minister in 2014, faced a series of attacks in France that have claimed more than 200 lives since January 2015.

In total, he championed three counter-terrorism laws and one intelligence law. He has also been in charge of implementing France’s state of emergency following the Paris attacks that killed 130 people in November 2015.

Earlier this year, he handled the dismantlement of the migrant camp in Calais on the French side of the English Channel, and the relocation of thousands of people to temporary reception centres across the country.

Mr Hollande said yesterday he has entrusted Mr Cazeneuve with protecting the French people.

“But protecting is not enough, we must prepare the future,” Mr Hollande said.

Bruno Le Roux, the head of the Socialist group in Parliament’s lower house, was appointed as France’s new interior minister. He is ­another close ally of Mr Hollande.

Mr Valls is the top contender in the primary next month for Socialist candidates and their allies before France’s two-part presidential election but he will face tough competition.

A leading yet divisive party figure, Mr Valls is known for his outspoken, authoritarian style and tough views on immigration and security. He has been criticised by other party members after championing tough labour reforms and endorsing a controversial ban last summer on the Islamic “burkini” swimsuit.

Former economy minister Arnaud Montebourg and former education minister Benoit Hamon, who back more left-leaning policies, are also serious contenders in the Socialist primary.

After a brief meeting with Mr Valls at the Elysee, Mr Hollande posted a brief message on Twitter announcing Mr Cazeneuve’s appointment, which was also confirmed by the presidential palace press office.

Mr Cazeneuve is a lawyer by training, has been an MP since 1997 and was mayor of Cherbourg between 2001 and 2012, when he gave up the position to join the government. He has two children.

Several French media outlets noted that Mr Cazeneuve is regarded very much as a safe pair of hands by Mr Hollande, who has come to rely heavily on his loyalty.

Le Monde, Liberation and Le Parisien all mentioned Mr Cazeneuve’s nickname “the Swiss army knife” – implying that he is Mr Hollande’s reliable assistant.

Le Monde also added that over the past few years, Mr Cazeneuve “has established himself as one of the key ­pieces on Hollande’s chessboard”.

Several pundits predict that Mr Cazeneuve is likely to spend only a record-breaking short term of five months in his new role before the election.