Paris / AFP
Jean-Marc Ayrault, who resigned as French prime minister two years ago to take the blame for a sputtering economy, has been rewarded for his loyalty to embattled President Francois Hollande with the foreign affairs portfolio.
Seen as a safe pair of hands but with little diplomatic experience — or charisma —the understated Ayrault, 66, will be expected to negotiate diplomatic minefields including Syria and Libya, as well as EU talks to ward off a potential “Brexit”.
The social democrat’s mastery of German —Ayrault is a former German professor —will be an asset as the European Union dossier becomes ever trickier. But the appointment of Ayrault, who was an unknown quantity as the deputy mayor of northwestern Nantes when Hollande tapped him as prime minister in 2012, only to dump him two years later, came as a surprise.
Of several names mooted in recent weeks as possible successors to Laurent Fabius, who stepped down on Wednesday as Hollande overhauls his cabinet to prepare his 2017 re-election bid, Ayrault’s emerged only early this week. Leading among the also-rans was the much higher-profile Segolene Royal, the president’s former partner and mother of his four children who is currently environment minister.
Lacking in charisma, the blond and blue-eyed Ayrault has a poker face that can mask insecurity as well as irritation.
“He has a kind of solidity,” a lawmaker said of Ayrault. “When things are going badly he doesn’t seem affected, and when things are going well he can’t seem to excite people.”
One of Ayrault’s greatest assets may be his lack of presidential ambition, unlike many prime ministers before him, observers say. He will join a government now led by the pro-business Manuel Valls, who was the main instigator of Ayrault’s ouster in the spring of 2014. Ayrault was a gracious scapegoat, saying: “The message the voters have sent is very clear and must be clearly heard.” While he steadfastly refrained from recriminations towards Hollande after being pushed out, he has not been shy about criticisingValls. In December he spoke out against measures championed by the former interior minister in the aftermath of the November jihadist attacks on Paris — notably a bid to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality.
However he stepped back into line by voting with the majority in favour of the measure on Wednesday.
Born January 25, 1950, to a working-class family, Ayrault is married with two daughters and three grandchildren and still takes his family on camping holidays in a Volkswagen minibus.