First meeting backs 30% wage reduction for all ministers and president, but UMP says new government is bigger and costlier
Members of France’s new government took up their posts on Thursday with President François Hollande’s promise of “dignity, simplicity and sobriety” ringing in their ears.
For the first time, half of the 34 appointed ministers are women, and only four of the new ministers have served in government before.
At the first council of ministers on Thursday afternoon, the government voted on its first measure, a 30% wage reduction for all ministers and the president, as promised by Hollande in his election campaign. Instead of €21,194 (£17,045) a month before tax, the president and prime minister will each receive €14,836. Ministerial monthly salaries drop from €13,423 to €9,396.
As a symbolic gesture in times of austerity, it was a masterstroke. Better still, it sat in stark contrast to the actions of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose first move upon taking office was to increase his salary by about 170%.
In another move in keeping with the tone of sobriety in office, ministers were told they would be expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct. The code rules out presents and private invitations, and encourages ministers to take the train whenever possible and, if travelling by car, to respect the highway code.
Hollande had already set an unusual precedent for the latter, by ordering his convoy to stop at red lights as he crossed Paris for his investiture at the Elysée palace on Tuesday.
The two-page document reminds ministers of the “existence of a line of confidence between the citizens and those who govern them”, and of “some simple principles that should guide their behaviour”.
As well as gender equality, which was a pillar of Hollande’s campaign, seven of the new posts went to ministers from French ethnic minorities. There was a considerable nod to a new generation of politicians: seven appointees are under 40 years old, with the youngest – Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, in charge of the newly created women’s rights ministry, and Sylvia Pinel, a junior minister in charge of tourism – both 34. Unusually, more than half of the ministries – 18 in total – are being headed by non-Parisiens.
Cécile Duflot, former head of the Green party, now minister for territorial equality and housing, told French TV she felt “emotion and enthusiasm”. Christiane Taubira, who becomes justice minister – with another woman, Delphine Batho, as her junior minister – said she was “extremely happy, and really enchanted”.
After years of internecine squabbles that have divided the French left, ministers were advised to avoid disputes. “The expression, direct or indirect, of disagreements can only weaken the government and provoke the scepticism of people with regard to the credibility of political action,” the code notes. “Once a decision is made … the principle of solidarity comes first.”
Ministers were also advised to “listen to the people” and use the internet to consult the public, and were instructed to demonstrate their commitment to the “transparency in government” vaunted by Hollande by signing a public declaration of interests listing all their property.
Jean-François Copé, head of Sarkozy’s UMP party, said the much-publicised salary cut was a “deception” as Hollande’s government was bigger than his predecessor’s and would therefore cost the taxpayer more. Hollande had promised a smaller tighter government ship during his campaign.
“We’ve gone from 15 ministers, four secretaries of state and one high commissioner to 34 ministers and junior ministers, an increase of 65%. The reduction of salaries by 30% cannot hide the reality: François Hollande’s government will cost the taxpayer a lot more,” Copé said.
“A second deception is this false-nose of unifying, of openness and of modernity.”He said Hollande had gathered a “clan of hard left” around him. “Apart from a few new faces, the most part are the archaic left trapped in the ideology of another century, that has nothing to do with modern social democracy.”
The UMP sent out waves of “communications” criticising Hollande’s actions. In one, Catherine Vautrin, a party militant, wrote: “He promised us a smaller government; we have 34 ministers. He promised us parity; how many of the key posts are held by women?”
After signing the code of conduct, it was down to work for the new ministers. Hollande told his new team: “There’s no time to lose in putting into effect the new changes.”
Earlier in the day each minister attended a handover ceremony with their predecessor. Only Roselyne Bachelot, Sarkozy’s minister for health and sports, failed to turn up, claiming she had a wedding to attend.
Vallaud-Belkacem, who is also the government spokesperson, said the first council of ministers had been “concentrated, studious and with a sense of gravity, but overlaid with human warmth and confidence”.
She said Hollande had told them they were now at the “exclusive service” of the state, and their job was to “put the country back on its feet”, with justice at the heart of their actions.
This government, however, may have a short shelf-life. France will go to the polls again next month for parliamentary elections. Hollande has warned that any minister who fails to win their seat in the national assembly will also lose their ministerial post.