France to EU: Yeah, we're going to need more time to meet our deficit-reduction targets. Again.

In the less than two years he’s been in office, French President Francois Hollande and his Socialist administration have succeeded at very little beyond worsening the record-high unemployment rate, bumping the economy around between stagnation and recession, and mostly failing to rein in the country’s profligate spending habits. Between the general dissatisfaction with Hollande and his cadre of Socialist politicians, as well as a growing grassroots mobilization of some of France’s social conservatives, the Socialists paid for their shortcomings in municipal elections over the weekend, with the French version of their center-right party (the party of former President Sarkozy) making some serious gains. Ergo, Hollande announced, he planned to promptly fire his prime minister and instead appoint a new one of at least slightly less leftist inclinations:

CRUSHED by defeat at French local elections, President François Hollande reacted this evening with uncharacteristic boldness, firing his prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, and replacing him with Manuel Valls, the ambitious, centre-left interior minister. Mr Hollande’s rout at the polls on March 30th, when his Socialist Party lost over 150 big towns to the right and far right, made it impossible even for the cautious president to continue with the old regime. His choice of Mr Valls is as risky as it is potentially encouraging for economic reform in France. …

The logic behind Mr Valls’s appointment is two-fold. First, Mr Hollande wants to press ahead with a more business-friendly economic policy, which he announced on January 14th, in order to revive France’s weak economy. This includes €10 billion ($14 billion) of new payroll-tax cuts for firms, as part of a “responsibility pact” designed to encourage job creation. But, with France under surveillance from the European Commission, it also involves finding a hefty €50 billion of budget savings during 2015-2017. This will require tough, unpopular decisions and so far Mr Hollande has taken none.

Evidently, however, Hollande intends to take his sweet time implementing those tough, unpopular, and — quelle horreur — pro-business, lower-tax decisions. The real anti-“austerity” leftists in his party seem convinced that the wave of unpopularity through which they are currently suffering is because Hollande hasn’t quite been Socialist enough in his policies (for instance, backing away from the 75 percent “supertax” on millionaires that served as one of his central campaign promises), and while Valls is a popular politician, his first assigned order of business is going to be trying to convince the European Union to give France still more time on accomplishing their erstwhile promise of bringing their deficit below three percent of GDP. I say “erstwhile promise,” because they said they would accomplish it in 2013, and didn’t.

French President François Hollande charged Mr. Valls with that mandate Monday evening, saying the new government must “convince” Brussels that tax cuts and other efforts to boost the economy should be taken into account when deciding the country’s targets for deficit reduction.

Although France is scheduled later this month to present to the EU a plan for how it intends to cut public spending by some €50 billion ($68.85 billion) over the next three years, Mr. Hollande said in Monday’s televised address that the priority was to protect fledgling growth.

“It’s not a question of cutting spending for the sake of it,” he said.

Top EU officials reacted coolly to what analysts see as an opening salvo in negotiations over France’s deficit targets, a day after figures showed France has already missed its 2013 public finances goal.

“It is essential that France acts decisively to ensure the sustainability of its public finances,” EU economics chief Olli Rehn said at a meeting of euro-zone finance ministers in Athens. “The correction deadline for France’s excessive deficit has already been extended twice in recent years.”

So basically, Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle is aimed at trying to please everyone at once (which usually ends up pleasing exactly no one) and skirt around addressing the same kind of policies that got France stuck in this stagnation rut in the first place.

French presidents serve five-year terms, and it sounds like France is in for a long three more years.