Francois Hollande, whose popularity is sagging, has taken action on two key fronts ahead of a difficult election year to mixed reviews. Elizabeth Bryant reports from Paris.
On Thursday night, the French president went on air to defend the measures, and to trace the outline of his last 15 months in office, faced with the task of reviving his deeply unpopular presidency.
"My task is to reform right until the end," Hollande said during a half-hour televised interview that covered issues ranging from unemployment, to the fate of a controversial airport project and the war in Syria. Dismissing questions about next year's vote, he added, "I will be fully president until the end."
Cabinet reshuffle an overture to the left
Hollande spoke just hours after the announcement of his new cabinet members, with former Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (pictured above left) being named the country's new foreign minister. Ayrault "has the experience, he understands the dossiers," the president said.
Three Greens Party members have also been tapped, with former leader Emmanuelle Cosse named housing minister and two others given junior posts.
The cabinet reshuffle, albeit modest, is getting mixed reviews. Analysts see the overture to the Greens as a way to broaden Hollande's leftist support ahead of the presidential season.
And while the former prime minister lacks the diplomatic experience of his predecessor, Laurent Fabius (pictured above right), Ayrault's support among core Socialists and German language skills are considered key assets, not only in working with France's top European partner, but also in balancing out more conservative views championed by Hollande's strong-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls.
On Wednesday evening, the National Assembly voted in favor of constitutional reforms that make it easier to strip terrorists of nationality and for the government to decree a state of emergency
"At the Foreign Ministry, Jean-Marc Ayrault will be Hollande's ally in refusing to be Manuel Valls' subordinate," the newspaper "Le Monde" wrote. "He will … try to help the President in rebalancing the left. Fifteen months ahead of a perilous presidential election, this could be precious."
For his part, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier welcomed Ayrault's appointment, saying he was "looking forward to our cooperation in the future."
Others dismiss the reshuffle as superficial. "It's like a cake where the crumbs are being distributed," Francois Bayrou, who heads the centrist Democratic Movement party, told French radio Friday.
Support for tougher security
More controversial are two proposed constitutional amendments that crossed their first hurdle on Wednesday.
The first seeks to write state of emergency provisions into the constitution, while the second would add text allowing judges to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality.
After days of emotional debate, lawmakers passed the legislation which heads to the Senate next month. A three-fifths majority of both houses will ultimately be needed to approve the final text. A vote is expected later this year at the Palace of Versailles.
On Thursday, Hollande urged for speedy passage of the measures he called for after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130 people. He also declared a state of emergency on the night of the attacks which Parliament extended this week for another three months.
The French government declared a nationwide state of emergency after terrorists unleashed a bloodbath in Paris on November 13
Outcry over nationality measure
On the biggest sticking point, stripping French nationality, Hollande said the reform had been demanded by many political parties. While citizenship can be revoked under the current law - the President cited five cases last year - it is not enshrined in the constitution.
"This only concerns terrorists," he added of the reform, "those who kill French people because they are French."
While polls show many back the reforms, the legislation has bitterly split Hollande's own governing left, with former Justice Minister Christiane Taubira quitting last month over the citizen-stripping clause. The right is also divided.
During debates this week, some lawmakers even drew parallels with World War II Vichy France, which stripped the citizenship of thousands of people - including General Charles de Gaulle who later became the nation's president. Center-right deputy Charles de Courson was in tears as he described how both his grandfather and father were considered traitors for resisting Nazi occupation.
State of emergency discriminatory?
The measures have also unleashed public protests and harsh criticism on other fronts. While the government argues the state of emergency has helped to destabilize terrorist networks and thwart at least one planned attack, rights groups claim the police raids and detentions have been largely ineffective and unfairly targeted Muslims and other groups.
In late January, protesters in the French capital demonstrated against the proposal to expand the government's right to declare a state of emergency
"After three months under a state of emergency, we see there have been many discriminatory, arbitrary measures taken," says Amnesty International France's free speech campaigner, Nicolas Krameyer, drawing parallels with the US Patriot Act. "The big risk is they will continue on a long-term basis."
In a nation still traumatized by the Paris attacks, polls show a majority supports the constitutional changes.
"The minute you're a criminal, you shouldn't have rights or privileges," says businessman Mishka Lossky, giving a thumbs up to the citizenship-stripping proposal.
But Claude Oraurensan, walking his French bulldog Pollo in downtown Paris, disagrees. "These measures are useless," he says. "It's just another restriction, and we'll see the effects long into the future."