France's Sarkozy tacks right with new cabinet
A leaner, more conservative French cabinet took office Monday to strengthen President Nicolas Sarkozy's 2012 re-election bid, but Prime Minister Francois Fillon was hailed as the real reshuffle winner.
After months of intrigue, Sarkozy swapped around a handful of key posts, fired several centre-right and left-wing ministers and slimmed the cabinet down to a team more likely to fall in behind his deficit-cutting austerity agenda.
Outgoing ministers spent Monday handing over portfolios to their successors after Sunday's shake-up. In Fillon's case, he stayed exactly where he was, in the prime minister's Matignon office, but in a far stronger position.
"How Fillon won the battle of Matignon," read a headline in the pro-government Le Figaro. "Fillon keeps Sarkozy," the left-leaning daily Liberation declared ironically.
"The right goes back to basics for 2012," said a headline in Le Monde, over an article arguing that Sarkozy's team was designed to shore up his right-wing base and launch his battle for re-election.
"It is a balanced, united government, which represents the majority and is at the service of the president to create the conditions for his victory in 2012," said Budget Minister Francois Baroin, now also government spokesman.
Looking ahead to the next presidential election, he said: "The choice in 18 months' time is how to create momentum behind Nicolas Sarkozy to stop the left getting back in."
Sarkozy's office said he would give a prime time televised interview on Tuesday evening and hold his first cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning.
Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux kept their jobs while several other Sarkozy loyalists were promoted or saw their responsibilities widened.
But centre-right Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo -- the number two figure in the outgoing government and until recently a frontrunner to become prime minister -- stepped down after losing out to Fillon.
"Most of the time, I accomplished my reforms in spite of Francois Fillon. He was almost always my principal opponent," said an embittered Borloo in an interview with Le Monde to be published Tuesday.
Borloo, who was replaced by 37-year-old Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, has previously hinted he may challenge Sarkozy in 2012.
Meanwhile another centre-right figure, sacked defence minister Herve Morin who has presidential ambitions of his own, denounced the new cabinet line-up as a right-wing "campaign team".
Popular Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a former Socialist minister, was replaced by conservative Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie.
Right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe returned to take over defence and will accompany Sarkozy to the NATO summit this week.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry slammed the reshuffle as a "blunt refusal" to address the concerns of the French electorate, after two months in which hundreds of thousands have protested against Sarkozy's pension reforms.
The president, who came to power in 2007 and named a broad-based cabinet including centrists and former leftists, is seen as seeking to consolidate his conservative base ahead of his upcoming re-election fight.
Sarkozy's approval ratings have dropped to around 30 percent as voters turn their backs on his domineering personal style or are outraged by austerity measures such as the pensions reform he pushed through last month.
In recent months he has taken a sharp swerve to the right on law and order and immigration issues, sparking international outrage by clearing Roma minorities out of camps and deporting them back to Eastern Europe.
Fillon has said his priorities are growth and jobs, and he will address parliament on November 24 to lay out his legislative programme.
"We're going to see a new distribution of tasks," said analyst Roland Cayrol.
"The president is going to transform gradually into a presidential election candidate while the government will take charge of continuing the reforms."
© 2010 AFP