French government resigns ahead of reshuffle

PARIS (AP) – France’s government resigned Monday and President Francois Hollande was expected to name a new Cabinet just 24 hours after his Socialists suffered heavy losses in nationwide municipal elections.

Disappointment with the Socialists’ handling of the economy drove many voters to conservative or anti-immigrant far-right candidates in the elections Sunday and Hollande hopes the reshuffle will boost the government’s popularity.

He was expected to announce a new prime minister Monday evening, after having met with outgoing Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

One of Hollande’s closest friends, Socialist Mayor of Dijon Francois Rebsamen, told RTL radio that popular Interior Minister Manuel Valls would be named prime minister.

Ayrault conceded that the elections were “a defeat for the government.” The administration has failed to fulfill its promises to cut France’s more than 10 percent unemployment and boost growth, which was just 0.3 percent last year, according to figures released Monday.

Record-low voter turnout and the poor showing for Socialist candidates “really sends a message to Hollande that he has to change his Cabinet, he has to reshuffle,” said Hall Gardner, professor of politics at the American University of Paris.

Changes are especially expected in the Finance Ministry, which has scared away investors with high and complex taxes and struggled to find solutions to chronic low growth and growing joblessness.

Hollande is expected to stick to a grand plan for a payroll tax cut aimed at creating jobs – even though it also involves unpopular spending cuts.

The biggest winners in Sunday’s vote were candidates from the far right National Front, who won mayoral races in 12 towns and took 1,546 city and town council seats, the party said Monday. That’s less than some Socialists had feared, but still a record-high number for the party, whose leader Marine Le Pen has tried to soften its xenophobic image and tapped into widespread discontent with mainstream politics.

Meanwhile, bad economic news keeps coming. The state statistics agency said Monday that the deficit shrank less than expected last year – prompting a rebuke from the EU economy commissioner – and debt continued to grow to 93.5 percent of GDP.

The French economy avoided sinking into a new recession, growing 0.3 percent in the fourth quarter, but overall prospects for growth are slow.

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Thomas Adamson and Angela Charlton in Paris and Juergen Baetz in Brussels contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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