PARIS (AP) — Faced with a voter backlash at the polls, French President Francois Hollande is looking to revive his sputtering presidency with help from a surprising quarter: Segolene Royal, the mother of his four children.
Royal, a high-profile Socialist in her own right, was tapped Wednesday to take over as minister of environment and energy in the new government named by Prime Minister Manuel Valls and Hollande, following a crushing defeat for their Socialist Party in municipal voting Sunday.
Speaking on French television, Royal said she is "very honored and at the same time I understand the importance of this major ministry in turning around the country and the job creation that goes with that."
Royal and Hollande will now meet each week at the government's Cabinet meetings — starting Friday.
Her return to government follows a long period in the political wilderness. She ran for president in 2007, losing to Nicolas Sarkozy.
She was overlooked for a spot in the Socialist government that took office after Hollande's presidential victory in 2012, despite having served as minister for education and family in governments under Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
Lifelong bachelor Hollande met Royal in 1978 during their studies at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration. They never married, and broke up in 2007 — one month after Royal's defeat in the presidential election— after almost 30 years together. Their two daughters and two sons are all grown.
Soon after splitting with Royal, Hollande made public a new relationship with the journalist Valerie Trierweiler.
After Hollande's presidential victory in 2012, Trierweiler was said to be opposed to seeing one-time romantic rival Royal enter the new government.
But Hollande and Trierweiler broke up last January a few days after a magazine published photos of what it said was the president, his faced obscured by a motorcycle helmet, visiting an actress for a secret tryst.
"I'm not at all looking for revenge," Royal told Europe 1 radio shortly before taking over the ministry, a sort of deja vu for the woman who was environment minister 22 years ago under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand — her mentor as well as Hollande's. This will be Royal's fourth time as a minister.
Despite losing a battle to become party leader in 2011 as well as her bid for a parliamentary seat in 2012, the 60-year-old Royal remains one of the Socialist party's most experienced leaders.
Welcoming Royal into government helps Hollande plug a hole created by the departure of the outgoing government's two Green party ministers. The Greens — a traditional ally of the Socialists — refused to serve in a government led by Valls, who they see as too far to the right.
During his electoral campaign, Hollande had pledged to reduce the share of nuclear energy in the power supply from 75 percent to 50 percent by 2025, and to close the oldest French nuclear plant of Fessenheim. Environmentalists criticized Hollande and the former government of Jean-Marc Ayrault for not pushing hard for these green goals.
The government shake-up was expected after Hollande's Socialist party suffered big losses in nation-wide voting for mayors and city counselors last week. Voters turned against the Socialists amid disillusionment with Hollande's inability to keep campaign promises to bring down record unemployment and turn around the economy.
Following Wednesday's government shake-up, the ambitious Valls will have to cope with the more leftist views of Hollande's entourage. Countering those who criticize his Socialist credentials, Valls repeated in a TV interview Wednesday night, "I am a man of the left."
He said the president told him in substance when conferring the prime minister's post on him "we must act quickly."
There have been widespread reports of an undercurrent of tension between Hollande and Valls, who is said to have presidential ambitions. Born in Spain, naturalized French at 20, Valls said his goal is to serve France "so the French have more pride in their country."
Laurent Fabius and Jean-Yves Le Drian keep their positions as foreign affairs and defense ministers in the new government. Former Finance Minister Pierre Moscovici has left the government and the brief has been split between two Socialists: Michel Sapin will take charge of finance, and Arnaud Montebourg will be in charge of industry and economy.
Sapin will have the tough job to negotiate with EU authorities regarding France's deficit.
The new government is composed of 16 ministers —eight men and eight women. Most were part of the outgoing government, with the exceptions of Royal and Francois Rebsamen, one of Hollande's closest friends, who was named minister of labor and employment.