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French President Hollande names new prime minister

The new pick comes after Manuel Valls, the former prime minister, stepped down to seek the presidency – and possibly save France's Socialist party.

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Bernard Cazeneuve, France's newly appointed prime minister, speaks in the Elysee Palace courtyard in Paris, Aug. 11.

Philippe Wojazer/Reuters/File

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On Tuesday, French President François Hollande named Bernard Cazeneuve prime minister of France until the presidential elections in May of next year.

Mr. Cazeneuve succeeds Manuel Valls, who stepped down from the post in order to launch his own presidential campaign. Cazeneuve, a longtime political ally to Mr. Hollande, was promoted to the post from the position of interior minister. With the election coming in spring 2017, he may become the shortest-serving prime minister in French history.

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The reshuffling of the French cabinet comes at a particularly harrowing time for Hollande's Socialist Party. With the president's low approval ratings and fear of more terrorist attacks in the country, voters in France are expected to reject the leftist party at the polls next year. Most analysts predict a contest that will leave the future of Socialist Party murky at best, with either center-right François Fillon or far-right Marine Le Pen taking the presidency in 2017.

Anti-immigration sentiments fueled by multiple terrorist attacks in France and massive protests over a controversial labor reform law introduced in May have contributed to a generally negative view of the Socialist Party in France, as The Christian Science Monitor previously reported. This dissatisfaction has helped Ms. Le Pen's far-right National Front gain ground over the past year and a half in a pattern matched by many similar populist movements around Europe, leading to unexpected victories for the far right in contests like Britain's vote to leave the European Union vote and the Italian constitutional referendum last week.

In an attempt to keep similar victories at bay, Hollande became the first French head of state in 60 years not to seek re-election on Thursday.

"I am aware today of the risk that going down a route that would not gather sufficient support would entail, so I have decided not to be a candidate in the presidential election," Hollande said in a televised address. 

Hollande's unusual choice to leave office is part of an effort to keep his unpopularity from forfeiting the Socialist Party's chances of victory against Mr. Fillon or Ms. Le Pen, with special concerns aimed at the latter candidate. As the Monitor's Sara Miller Liana reported in November:

For all of the political uncertainty that Brexit unleashed – and the worrying votes ahead, in Austria and Italy this week alone – the stakes are seen to be the highest in France. The prospect of a far-right president, promising her own EU membership referendum, at the core of Europe could cause the entire project to unravel.

Polls have shown Ms. Le Pen will easily make it to Round 2 of the presidential vote. And with the Socialist Party of President François Hollande in disarray, pollsters predict the race will come down to Fillon and Le Pen. His tough line on immigration, calling for the strictest controls, could take some wind out of her sails.

Many in the Socialist Party are worried about the prospect of a Le Pen presidency and a French government run by the National Front, which has been unable to fully separate itself from associations with anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories. Despite her attempts to cast the party in a more respectable light, the anti-establishment Le Pen still faces strong competition from the more center-right Fillon.

By stepping away from the prospect of reelection, Hollande has also opened the door for former Prime Minister Valls to launch a campaign of his own and unify the left against a potential Le Pen presidency.

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"Today, it's at the doors of power," Valls said during his campaign announcement, referring to Le Pen's National Front party. "Its platform would ruin the small people, the retirees, the blue-collar workers. It would expel us from Europe, it would eject us from history."

No former prime minister has ever won a race for the presidency of France. In order to pull off a win against Le Pen or Fillon, Valls will have to distance himself from his unpopular president and what many French voters see as the failure of the Socialist Party to keep France safe from terror attacks.

Hollande likely had this criticism of his party in mind when he appointed Valls's replacement. For the president, Cazeneuve's primary qualification for the newly vacant position is his experience dealing with the Paris and Nice terrorist attacks as interior minister, according to Radio France Internationale. But while the public largely rallied around Cazeneuve after the Paris attack, he was heavily criticized for his handling of the Nice aftermath, along with the rest of the Socialist Party.

Hollande has also appointed Bruno Le Roux to Cazeneuve's old position as interior minister.

This article contains material from Reuters.