PARIS – France's new prime minister is a Socialist who has disavowed the word, a cipher on the economic policy he must sell to both the French people and the European Union, and an unapologetically ambitious climber more popular than his conciliatory boss.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls goes before the Socialist-led national assembly for the first time since he was given the job in a government reshuffle triggered by his party's dismal showing in local elections. He is facing a confidence vote from lawmakers suspicious of the economic turnaround he is supposed to lead — and the 50 billion euros ($69 billion) he is supposed to cut from the budget.
With unemployment hovering around 10 percent for more than five years, minuscule economic growth, and a public debt that is a source of tension with the EU, Valls and his boss, President Francois Hollande, will need more than just confidence — they're hoping the vote will give them much needed room to maneuver.
At stake are jobs for 3 million unemployed French workers and prospects for the entire eurozone economy.
The Spanish-born Valls has carefully built a reputation as an uncompromising iconoclast. In 2009, he called on the Socialist Party to abandon the name "because the word 'socialism' is without a doubt outdated. It recalls 19th-century ideas." Valls remained in the party, as did the word "Socialist."
In 2011, as a candidate, he said the 35-hour workweek was holding France back. The policy aims to boost employment by limiting employees' work hours, but has been criticized as ineffectual. "It's the role of political leaders, especially on the left, to come up with new proposals that don't cling to ideas or positions from the 70s, 80s or 90s," he said at the time.
As interior minister, he weathered intense criticism that he was violating the rights of the itinerant Roma population when his officers dismantled their camps and sent them packing. Then he came under attack for banning the shows of a controversial comic, Dieudonne, whose Nazi-like salute touched off allegations of anti-Semitism.
But as Hollande's popularity tanked — the president now has a 17-percent approval rating, according to one measure — Valls' has steadily climbed. His new job is primarily as salesman of Hollande's economic plan, which has been carefully crafted in an effort to please the restive business community with promises of cuts to taxes and red tape, as well as unions with promises of jobs. It will be the first time the French nation hears his thoughts on the economy.
Valls eats only red meat — never fish — with his meals and maintains a gluten-free diet (no pastries), according to a report in the French daily Le Figaro that may have served only to enhance his reputation for austerity and toughness.
Neither one of those qualities is especially valued among French Socialists, who fear economic austerity will erode the country's famed safety net, cost them their hold on power, and still fail to bring the deficit back within the EU limit of 3 percent of GDP, which France has missed since 2007.
"The question is whether you have a political class that is willing to commit seppuku — honorable suicide — by doing something for the country," said Daniel Gros, director of the Brussels-based Center for European Policy Studies. "That is what they need to do in France, and the longer they wait the more painful it will be."
Many economic analysts predict the EU will give France a pass this year on its deficit, as it has every year.
"France remains the only big EU member state not to have undertaken any major structural reform since the debt crisis hit in 2010," Mujtaba Rahman, an analyst for Eurasia Group, wrote in a research note. "However, politics will prevail."
At the core of Hollande's plan is a "pact of responsibility" with business: The government will ease payroll taxes that are the highest in Europe; in exchange, companies are expected to hire. Separately, the independent state auditor has already given the government some cover for raising the 35-hour workweek, with a decision in July that said two hours more would inject up to 1.5 billion euros into the economy.
After Valls' appointment last week, Medef, the country's largest employers' association, said the question went well beyond the Socialists' dismal election results to the heart of France's ability to compete in Europe and beyond.
"Our country has been losing ground little by little for years," Pierre Gattaz, Medef's president, said in a statement. "The new government has to prove its courage, dedication and coherence" with the economic reforms.
Hollande, at the end of Valls' first Cabinet meeting, had a similar message: "Deeper reforms are needed."
But many question whether Valls' main purpose is to repackage old, failed ideas.
"The change in person is meaningless unless it also means a change in policy direction, and that is ultimately decided at least in France by the president himself," Gros said. "One can only hope that the same man can have different ideas now and actually put them into action."
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