French energy minister fired for speaking out of turn

Reuters News
Posted: Jul 02, 2013 1:42 PM
French energy minister fired for speaking out of turn

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande fired his energy and environment minister Delphine Batho on Tuesday for publicly criticizing cuts to her budget.

Hollande, whose poll ratings are slumping amid spiraling unemployment and moribund growth, appears increasingly determined to assert his authority over the government while pushing through spending cuts to trim the budget deficit.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said other ministers should take note. "There was an obvious problem of coherence within the government," he told the iTele news channel. "What applies to Delphine Batho applies to others as well."

Batho was summoned to Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault's office hours after telling RTL radio that she disagreed with a plan to cut the Environment Ministry's budget by 7 percent next year. The government aims to reduce public spending by 14 billion euros overall.

"It's a bad budget ... I prefer to tell the truth," Batho said. "Of course there will be cuts and budget tightening, but there are also other ways of proceeding, like environmental taxes or forward-looking investments."

Hollande called Batho to ask her to take back her comments, but she refused, the president's office said. Ayrault then called her in to tell her she was dismissed.

The move angered the environmentalist Greens party, which has two ministers in the cabinet and fears that the government is losing its focus on environmental policy.

Greens senator Jean-Vincent Place complained of a "double standard", noting that other ministers famous for speaking out freely such as firebrand industry minister Arnaud Montebourg were still in their posts.

Batho, a vehement opponent of shale gas exploration, had been given the task of piloting a debate to find ways to reduce France's reliance on nuclear energy and boost renewables.

In an evening crisis meeting, the Greens agreed they would stay in the cabinet for now but said they would scrutinize the government's commitments on environmental policy when the 2014 budget came to parliament in September. Hollande's Socialists would in any case still have a majority even if the Greens switched into opposition.

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French media speculated earlier this year that Hollande would reshuffle the cabinet following a series of communication gaffes and after former budget minister Jerome Cahuzac quit in March over a secret Swiss bank account.

However, sources close to the government told Reuters such a reshuffle was unlikely before the summer break, and that Hollande would instead urge ministers to sharpen their focus on unemployment and other issues sapping their popularity.

Socialist Party lawmaker Philippe Martin was named as successor to Batho, a switch unlikely to have a significant impact on energy policy, long the preserve of the president.

Martin, 59, is a former departmental prefect close to Fabius who has been in parliament since 2002. He is a fierce critic of genetically modified organisms (GMO).

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(Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau and Michel Rose; Writing by Natalie Huet; Editing by Kevin Liffey)