It’s been a very lean couple of years for the Left in Europe. Since losing government in Spain last December, it has been simultaneously out of office in the six biggest economies in the EU — something that hadn’t happened since the early 1960s.

But no longer: France now has a socialist government, with a new ministry named overnight by Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who was appointed the previous day by new president François Hollande. The government as yet lacks a parliamentary majority, but it’s overwhelmingly likely that it will win one in legislative elections to be held next month.

It’s the President who gets most of the publicity, but, like Australia, France is governed by a Prime Minister and ministers responsible to the legislature. The President, however, is independently powerful, and when his party controls the legislature then he is clearly the one in charge.

(A referendum in 2000 reduced presidential terms to five years in order to make this more likely.) Ayrault will be Hollande’s loyal lieutenant, just as François Fillon was for Nicolas Sarkozy.

During the campaign, Hollande declined to say much about the likely composition of his government, but it was no surprise that Ayrault got the nod — he is a strong supporter of Hollande and has been parliamentary leader of the Socialists for the past 15 years. One specific promise that Hollande made has been kept: the new ministry has equal numbers of men and women, both among the 18 ministers and the 16 assistant ministers, although the women tend to be concentrated in the more junior positions.

If the Left’s problem has been that voters were worried about instability and looking for safety in troubled times, then Hollande’s government should be reassuring. The ministers are mostly pretty conventional choices, less glamorous than Sarkozy’s appointments, and for a party that’s been out of office for 10 years there’s quite a bit of experience. Interior minister is Manuel Valls, who was the most pro-market of the Socialist contenders for the presidential nomination, and went on to be Hollande’s chief spokesperson during the campaign.

Finance minister Pierre Moscovici is a former assistant minister for European affairs and another leader of the party’s social democrat wing.

Balancing them to some extent is Laurent Fabius in foreign affairs. Fabius, a former prime minister, led the minority within the Socialist Party that opposed the EU constitution in the 2005 referendum, and has been on the outer since losing heavily to Ségolène Royal in the contest for the 2007 nomination, but Hollande evidently feels it’s safer having him within the tent. Arnaud Montebourg, another potential rival from the party’s left, becomes industry minister.

An obvious omission is party secretary Martine Aubry, who had hoped to be prime minister but failing that has chosen to remain in the organisational wing, just as Hollande himself did in 1997. (Several of her close supporters, however, have been given jobs.) There’s also no room for Dominique Strauss-Kahn, once favourite for the nomination but subsequently embroiled in a series of s-x scandals.

This is a difficult time for France and for Europe, and Hollande knows that he needs to work with his centre-right counterparts — most of all German chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he visited immediately following his inauguration. His task will be to show that austerity measures can be softened while still hewing to the line of financial responsibility — and given the unpopularity of continued austerity, it’s very much in Merkel’s interests to let him try.

So this is not a time for theatrics. After a few years, if things keep going the same way, Hollande may find he has a lot of other centre-left European heads of government to work with. But for now, his naturally cautious temperament seems to be suited to the times.