PARIS, Aug 26 (Reuters) - 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 expected.
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 rebel lawmakers.
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 departure. (Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey and Julien Ponthus; Editing by Mark John and Anna Willard)