French President Nicolas Sarkozy reshuffles cabinet after election drubbing

French President Nicolas Sarkozy started to reshuffle his cabinet Monday after a resurgent left beat his center-right party in regional voting. The losses have some questioning Sarkozy's shot at reelection in 2012.

Philippe Wojaze/Reuters
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy (left) and Prime Minister François Fillon speak at the Elysee Palace in Paris Monday after a meeting to discuss the consequences of the ruling center-right party's loss in the regional elections during the weekend.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy began a minor reshuffle of his government hours after a thumping defeat in the second and final round of regional voting – a by-election seen Monday as a troubling referendum on the rule of the flamboyant French leader.

While conventional wisdom in France last year had Sarkozy a lock for reelection in 2012, the 54 percent vote for the French left indicates a changed political landscape in which Sarkozy and his center-right party will face a hard fight to hold on to power.

Even ruling party officials admit the outcome has revitalized Sarkozy’s opposition both in and outside the ruling party, especially among the Socialists led by Martine Aubry. “By voting – but also for many people by abstaining – the French people have expressed their rejection of the policies of the president and his government,” Ms. Aubry said last night.

3 million unemployed

The French electorate voted amid worries over 3 million unemployed, an uneasy sense about Sarkozy’s incomplete reforms, and criticism in Sarkozy’s party of efforts to reach out to the French left, allegedly leaving the French right without a focused program.

A substantial number of the French right that voted for Sarkozy in 2007 shifted back to ultraconservative National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who scored well at nearly 10 percent.

The defeat is “a turning point in Sarkozy's mandate," offered the right-leaning Le Figaro on Monday. Sarkozy will need to "send strong signals" to right-wing voters who feel they “have been left on the side of the road.”

France's left captures local concerns, including education

Sarkozy’s popularity in France has been in slow ebb of late. But the pro-left vote in some 23 of 26 regions showed an enormous local tractability for the much maligned Socialists. Just last summer, following numerous defections and intense bickering as Aubry sought to assert leadership, the French left was being described as moribund.

Yet the three main French left parties – the Socialists, the Greens, and the Left Party – now together appear positioned to take the majority in the French Senate for the first time since the late 1950s.

“The regions are in charge of high schools, public transportations, housing, and various social allocations,” says Karim Emile Bitar, an analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris. “When it comes to these day-to-day concerns, the French feel more comfortable with the left.”

Palace reshuffle won't include top politicians

Ruling party officials downplayed a poor showing in the first round of voting earlier this month. But yesterday’s results led Prime Minister François Fillon to describe the outcome as “disappointing." Monday’s palace reshuffle is expected to be “technical” and will not involve leading figures like Mr. Fillon.

“We weren’t able to convince the people,” Fillon said later. “I accept my part of the responsibility.”

Agence France Presse (AFP) reported Monday that Sarkozy is looking to replace budget minister Eric Woerth with Françoise Baroin but that Sarkozy will not abandon plans to raise the retirement age and and reduce federal spending.

Controversial Minister of Immigration Eric Besson, responsible for administering a national identity debate last fall that appeared to devolve into a targeting of nonwhite French and Muslims, admitted after the Sunday vote that the debate “contributed to the weakening of the majority,” adding that “this is not what I feel, but I hear it.”

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