France’s Cazeneuve challenges conservative Fillon in first speech as prime minister

Bernard Cazeneuve

Bernard Cazeneuve

Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on Tuesday pledged to “protect French people” in his first speech to France’s National Assembly, defending President François Hollande and directly challenging conservative lawmakers.

Cazeneuve delivered a fiery speech in which he admitted he had precious few months to serve as the new prime minister. He adopted a combative tone against critics of the country’s Socialist government and promised to “make every day count”.

“We can reform without injuring, we can modernise without destroying,” Cazeneuve said, directly challenging conservative presidential nominee François Fillon, who has said he will massively scale back the number of civil servants and deregulate the economy.

“How can you protect French people by firing policemen… doctors… teachers?” he said, raising his voice over heckling opposition MPs.

Cazeneuve was appointed France’s prime minister on December 6, allowing former Prime Minister Manuel Valls to launch a bid for the Elysée Palace next year. France will hold a two-round presidential election on April 23 and May 7, 2017.

Cazenueve was widely praised as France’s interior minister, leading a calm yet efficient fight against jihadist networks in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks in and around Paris.

Defending Hollande

The newly appointed prime minister said that reducing massive unemployment would “remain the priority” as he took up the reigns of the French government for the next five months.

He said he would push through the reforms championed by Hollande and predecessors Valls and Jean-Marc Ayrault, saying the measures were finally showing results. He said the number of requests for unemployment benefits had decreased, citing official figures.

He also defended his track record in the fight against terrorism, saying France had questioned 568 people with suspected links to terrorism and thwarted 17 terrorist operations under his watch as interior minister.

Another swipe at Fillon

Cazeneuve started his speech by denouncing the “countless atrocities” that had been committed by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad in the besieged city of Aleppo, saying the actions could be considered “crimes against humanity”.

He admonished President Vladimir Putin for the military support he has given Assad, though he did not name the Russian leader directly.

“We will never accept, in the name of so-called realism, to ally ourselves with those responsible for the massacre in Aleppo,” Cazeneuve added, in another swipe at Fillon, who has defended keeping Assad in power as a way to prevent further chaos in war-torn Syria.