Sarkozy cabinet reshuffle aims to capture Gaullist fields of French right

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's cabinet reshuffle Sunday shows an Elysée Palace with a sharp eye on the 2012 elections. Sarkozy's ratings are at a historic low.

Thibault Camus/AP Photo
French President Nicolas Sarkozy is seen prior to welcoming Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou (unseen) at the Elysee Palace, in Paris, Monday, Nov. 15.

Nicolas Sarkozy’s election in 2007 brought a mixed set of left-wing ministers to his cabinet, including some high-profile female minority figures, a rarity in political life here. It played as a smart move to “co-opt” or nullify the left in France.

But a cabinet reshuffle yesterday shows an Elysée Palace ready to capture the Gaullist fields of the French right ahead of 2012 elections. Mr. Sarkozy jettisoned his Socialist Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and the Algerian-origin Urban Minister Fadela Amara, and gave the Defense Ministry and No. 2 cabinet spot to Alain Juppe, prime minister under former President Jacques Chirac.

In a surprise, Sarkozy retained Prime Minister François Fillon, which has played here as a presidential nod through clenched teeth, given that Mr. Fillon has higher approval than the president. Sarkozy had been ready to offer the prime minister spot to Jean Louis Borloo, a centrist with ties to the left. But with Sarkozy’s ratings at a historic low, the palace did not dismiss the current prime minister; “Fillon Keeps Sarkozy” was the cheeky headline in today’s left-leaning Liberation newspaper.

Sarkozy retained Finance Minister Christine Lagarde, who said today that the reshuffle is “totally revolutionary” and marks a “360-degree turn” toward “solidity and professionalism."

Long-awaited move

The reshuffle has been long awaited. Sarkozy chose the weekend after the Group of 20 economic meeting in Seoul – he presides over next year’s G20 and is expected to propose a set of global financial reforms – to announce the changes.

The move also appears to shore up a center-right focus and back away from harder-right policies last summer, including police crackdowns on minorities and tougher immigration policies. That political territory, considered the vote bank of the popular Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front, had previously been targeted by Sarkozy’s political advisers.

Yet the summer shift, including a targeting of Roma or Gypsies that backfired in public opinion, brought a plummet in Sarkozy’s ratings. Hence, in the reshuffle, the palace has simply “disappeared” a new controversial Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, putting its portfolio into the Interior ministry. Reports in the political weekly Canard Enchaine has Sarkozy saying that for every vote he gains from Ms. Le Pen, he loses four from the French mainstream.

Some analysts say the new government reflects a more cautious tenor in contrast with the robust and dynamic plans of Sarkozy in 2007, when France’s youngest president promised a wide-spread break or “rupture” with the past.

Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who plans to challenge Sarkozy from the center-right in 2012, painted the reshuffle as evidence that Sarkozy is out of touch with French sensibilities.

“Political continuity is a good thing as long as there is a political vision, and there lies the problem," Mr. Villepin said on French TV Monday morning. "There is no vision, and because of that, one may regret.… the government and the president are distancing themselves from the French. That is for me the main lesson to be drawn from this reshuffle."

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