PARIS Francois Hollande launched what he has billed as a fresh start to his unpopular 22-month-old presidency on Tuesday, as new prime minister Manuel Valls took up his post and set about forming a reshuffled government.
The 51-year-old centrist, who as tough-talking interior minister has consistently been Hollande's most popular minister in surveys, replaced Jean-Marc Ayrault who quit following the ruling Socialist Party's rout in weekend local elections.
"This is a difficult but inspiring task," Valls said as he took up his post in a brief handover ceremony with Ayrault at the 18th-century Matignon mansion in central Paris which serves as the prime minister's office.
"I will continue the work you have done to put right our country, economy, industry and public finances," he said.
While Valls is a public favorite, including with conservative voters, his centrist views make him more controversial with the left wing of the Socialist Party.
Among his first duties will be to propose a new government as early as Wednesday. Already, two ministers from Hollande's Greens coalition partners who had worked in Ayrault's cabinet said on Monday they would not be available to work with Valls.
The aim is to come up with a government team of around 25 members more effective than the outgoing group of 38, whose squabbling and indecisiveness gave an impression of amateurishness.
Speculation has centered on whether Pierre Moscovici will remain in the powerful finance minister's job, while coalition sources have also talked about a possible return to government for Segolene Royal, Hollande's ex-partner and a former Socialist presidential candidate.
Industry Minister Arnaud Montebourg, a critic of austerity policies and a believer in protectionism to secure jobs, gave public support to Valls on national radio earlier on Tuesday. Some sources said he could end up with an expanded portfolio.
Laurent Fabius is seen remaining as foreign minister, possibly with extra responsibilities for trade and the pursuit of what he calls "economic diplomacy" to seek business opportunities for French firms abroad.
(Reporting by Mark John and Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Alexandria Sage)