By Daniel Flynn
PARIS (Reuters) - German-speaker Jean-Marc Ayrault, tipped to be named France's prime minister on Tuesday, is a veteran parliament leader whose familiarity with Germany and deal-making skills may prove invaluable as his Socialist government seeks to challenge Berlin's focus on austerity.
The stately, silver-haired Ayrault - a former German teacher and long-time ally of president-elect Francois Hollande - has made pragmatism his hallmark in holding together the Socialists' fractious parliamentary group as its floor leader since 1997.
With his understanding of Germany's language and culture, the conciliatory Ayrault could be a bridge-builder with Berlin after a bruising election race that focused on Hollande's demands to renegotiate a German-inspired budget discipline pact for Europe.
At home, the new government will also face the need to sell inevitable deficit-cutting measures to a public weary of unemployment running at nearly 10 percent.
If appointed, Ayrault could accompany Hollande on his first official trip to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Tuesday, hours after the president is sworn in.
"Ayrault is someone who believes above all in dialogue and he understands Europe very well," said Jacques-Pierre Gougeon, a specialist in Franco-German relations at IRIS research institute in Paris.
Mayor of the western city of Nantes, the reserved Ayrault was a special advisor to Hollande's election campaign, entrusted with liaising with other European left parties, particularly the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) in Germany.
Behind the scenes, the 62-year-old has carried out sensitive missions for Hollande. Last year, he met a senior adviser to Merkel in Berlin in an effort to build ties with her conservative government.
A weaker-than-expected showing by the far-left in the first round of France's presidential election on April 22 suggested Ayrault could have a simpler task in building support for legislation than many Socialists had feared.
Communist-backed candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon finished fourth in the poll with just 11 percent, suggesting the Socialists may be less reliant on their far-left neighbors after parliamentary ballots on June 10 and June 17.
Hollande, who like Ayrault comes from the Socialists' moderate social democrat wing, insists he wants to hand back influence to the prime minister after five years in which Nicolas Sarkozy concentrated presidential power.
Hollande is also determined to involve parliament more in euro zone crisis management after Sarkozy handed control over strategy to a handful of unelected advisers.
PARLIAMENT NEEDS MORE INFLUENCE
The son of a factory worker, Ayrault has sat in parliament since 1986 and was initially on the Socialists' left wing before gradually shifting toward social democracy.
He, like Hollande, has never held ministerial office.
But Ayrault - an admirer of the German model where parliament is consulted on euro zone policies - could play a crucial role in coaxing legislative colleagues into backing crisis measures.
"Ayrault has a very parliamentary outlook. He believes the parliament in France does not have enough influence," Gougeon said. "And he knows Hollande very, very well."
Hollande insisted that he wanted a prime minister with whom he has a strong personal relationship.
One of Ayrault's first tasks would be to help soothe relations with Berlin over Hollande's plan to temper the fiscal compact signed by 25 EU leaders by adding a growth focus.
"The treaty is incomplete," Ayrault told Reuters in a recent interview, saying a supplementary growth pact was required. "We need to discuss this, to reopen the process. Each side needs to take a step toward the other. We need to find a consensus."
But he emphasized that an Hollande government would stick to promises to balance the budget by the end of its five-year term, after France posted a deficit of 5.2 percent of GDP last year.
"All public spending will be evaluated to see if it is useful or not," Ayrault told Reuters.
Ayrault long seemed destined to stay a provincial politician after winning the mayoralty of Nantes in 1989.
Last week, French media publicized a suspended sentence and 4,500-euro fine which Ayrault received in 1997 for an improperly tendered contract to print a Nantes local newspaper, saying this was incompatible with Hollande's vow to clean up politics.
Ayrault said he took responsibility for the mistake because he was mayor but he was not personally involved in the affair.
"My personal integrity has never been questioned. There was never any question of personal enrichment or political financing. I am an honest man and I will remain an honest man," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emile Picy; Editing by Paul Taylor and Janet Lawrence)