PARIS Aug 26 As France's firebrand economy
minister, Arnaud Montebourg loved setting off political bombs.
But this time, one may have exploded on him earlier than he
The self-styled economic protectionist had made little
secret of his intention to leave Francois Hollande's government
at some point before the 2017 election - possibly to try and
secure the Socialist Party ticket to run as president himself.
But the question is whether his unexpected cabinet eviction
on Monday, which came after a weekend outburst against budgetary
rigour, will end up weakening or strengthening the hand of the
51-year-old leftist in the wrangling over the direction of
French reform to come.
"Montebourg was always going to make a dramatic exit as he
does not want to be associated with the Hollande shipwreck," one
finance ministry veteran told Reuters before this week's events,
the latest to rock Hollande's troubled two-year presidency.
"But too soon would be difficult for him because he does not
have many followers," he added of a figure who, despite his
ability to grab headlines, does not have a power base in the
Socialist Party where Hollande-backers occupy key roles.
A reflective Montebourg conceded on prime-time television
late Monday he had not expected things to accelerate so quickly.
"I will now start looking for a job, like many other French
people," he quipped, insisting he would continue to fight to
uphold France's industrial heritage and Socialist values.
While few expect him to be out of the limelight for long,
the near-term future remains uncertain for the politician who
won international fame this year for forcing General Electric to
sweeten its tie-up offer to French industrial group Alstom.
While he is unrepentant over his attacks on budget
discipline and calls for Hollande to abandon his increasingly
pro-business line and do more to help the poor and unemployed,
Montebourg insists he will back the new government - for now.
Moreover his scope for creating a stir is, for the time
being, relatively limited.
France's Constitution gives the president powerful tools to
stay in power and quash dissent even with a fragile majority:
article 49-3 allows him to push through a bill without a vote
unless opponents table and vote a no-confidence motion.
Trained lawyer Montebourg is something of an outsider in
French elite circles, not having attended the ENA civil service
school like Hollande and many top French officials.
In a country of life-serving politicians, Montebourg only
had his first government job when he became Industry Minister in
2012, a role he used to champion "buy French" policies and seek
to rescue businesses from bankruptcy or foreign takeovers.
Moreover, he does not have a seat in parliament or any other
political mandate from which to make himself heard.
Barely a dozen lawmakers are estimated to pledge allegiance
to Montebourg - making it hard for him to nurture a new
rebellion even if he wanted to.
"Montebourg acquired gravitas thanks to his time as minister
... He has no interest in harming that image," said Stephane
Rozes, head of Cap political analysis.
Yet longer term, Montebourg's prospects look more promising.
With undoubted charisma and oratory skills, Montebourg came
in a strong third in the Socialist party's competition for the
party's 2012 presidential ticket and surveys place him far ahead
of Hollande in terms of popularity today.
While the incumbent is stuck with a record low rating of 17
percent, 46 percent of French considered Montebourg an asset to
the government, an Ifop poll showed last month.
Although his "buy French" campaign has had mixed results, it
made him a household name - especially after he posed for a
magazine cover in a Breton jersey holding a kitchen food-mixer.
Although they do not recognise him as their leader, rebel
Socialist lawmakers were quick to condemn his eviction, adding
they saw "convergence" with Montebourg. Moreover the ecologist
Green party and France's splintered left are all unhappy with
Hollande's new centrist path.
Already, the 2015 budget, due to be drafted by the new
government by end-September and to be voted on in parliament by
year-end, will be the first major test of the extent to which
Montebourg will try to weigh from the sidelines and influence
Some 40-odd rebel Socialist backbenchers this year abstained
in a vote over Hollande's reform path based on public spending
savings and business tax cuts.
"There is a majority in the National Assembly and in the
country for another policy focused on social progress," said one
Socialist backbencher Pouria Amirshahi, bemoaning Montebourg's
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Julien Ponthus;
Editing by Mark John and Anna Willard)