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France’s political man of the moment is Arnaud Montebourg, the tousle-haired industry minister in François Hollande’s socialist government. To give him his formal title, the minister of productive recovery is never out of the news these days.
A lawyer by profession, Mr Montebourg won his spot in the cabinet by coming third behind Mr Hollande in last year’s Socialist presidential primaries, winning a healthy 17 per cent of the vote with his fiery anti-globalisation rhetoric and espousal of good old-fashioned French dirigisme.
However, his reward looks more like a poisoned chalice by the day as he battles one company after another planning to shutter factories and lay off workers. His role appears less about productive recovery than an increasingly desperate rearguard action to stem an alarming spate of industrial closures.
That has not stopped Mr Montebourg locking horns with some big names: he famously dissed the Peugeot family’s running of the lossmaking carmaker in a dust-up over PSA Peugeot Citroën’s plan to close a plant near Paris and cull 6,000 jobs.
Philippe Varin, head of PSA, and Christopher Viehbacher, chief executive of the French pharmaceutical group Sanofi, are among those private sector bosses summoned to see Mr Montebourg at the fortresslike finance ministry complex overlooking the Seine.
Sanofi did agree to lower the numbers in its redundancy plan after receiving the Montebourg treatment. The minister has lost some of his swagger as the job cuts mount up, however. “Montebourg, is he really productive?” ran the front page of Le Parisien at the weekend.
On Monday, another shoe dropped when steelmaker ArcelorMittal confirmed it was closing its blast furnaces at Florange in Lorraine. Mr Montebourg is now getting it in the neck from trade unionists, receiving an angry reception when he visited Florange last week.
Four months ago, Mr Montebourg embodied the confidence of a revived French left restored to power after 10 years in the wilderness. Now he looks more like a symbol of the new government’s juddering confrontation with harsh economic reality.
As the Hollande regime’s woes mount, an intriguing candidate as France’s man of tomorrow is none other than – Nicolas Sarkozy, his vanquished predecessor.
“Coucou, I’m back!” was the cover on Le Point magazine last week, under a picture of a beaming, unshaven Sarko looking rested after a summer of post-election downtime, a chunk of it spent cycling, swimming and generally relaxing at his wife Carla Bruni’s family pad on the Côte d’Azur.
He said before May’s election that if he lost, “you won’t hear from me again”. But this politician-to-his-fingertips has never closed the door to a return to the presidential fray.
As his dour former prime minister François Fillon battles Jean-Francois Copé, a kind of underpowered Sarko Mk II, for leadership of the centre-right UMP party, the comeback scenario goes something like this:
Mr Hollande is almost bound to fail in the face of the economic crisis; neither Mr Fillon nor Mr Copé seems to have the heft to inspire the electorate; cue a triumphant return for the 2017 election of the reformist Sarkozy, finally able to deliver France from its troubles.
Then again, Sarko, who has reportedly been toiling to improve his English, may seek the Tony Blair route to international envoy-dom and moneymaking consultant. Either way, it is a good bet that we will see him back in public before too long.
Back to the future
Speaking of revivals, word has it that Citroën is working on a revamp of its much-mourned 2CV, the rattletrap car it launched in 1948. Its original brief was to be able to carry “four people and 50kg of potatoes, at 60 kmph”. Its ramshackle looks were affectionately described as a “chaise longue under an umbrella”.
No doubt the reworked version due in 2014 will, like latter day Minis, VW Beetles and Fiat 500s, do little more than echo the original.
Paris’s fleet of vélib rental bicycles does much to obviate the need for car ownership – but for those who do want to drive around the capital, surely the hilarious Renault Twizy, an eye-catching, four-wheeled electric buggy in which the single passenger sits directly behind the driver, would offer more panache?