Sarkozy names new government with eye on 2012
France's President Nicolas Sarkozy was choosing a new cabinet line-up on Sunday, hoping to reinvigorate his government and set the stage for his undeclared 2012 re-election campaign.
Sarkozy renamed Francois Fillon as his prime minister, just hours after the pro forma resignation of the government, and the premier's office said the new ministerial team was to be announced later in the day or early on Monday.
"After three-and-a-half years of courageous reform, carried out despite a severe global economic and financial crisis, I begin with determination, under the authority of the head of state, this new stage," Fillon said.
Fillon promised to boost France's anaemic growth and to cut unemployment, and praised what he said was Sarkozy and the right-wing parliamentary majority's determination to stick by unpopular but necessary reforms.
Sarkozy had first signalled in March that he planned to renew his cabinet, and there has been mounting political tension since he confirmed this in June, as ministers jostled for seats at the cabinet table.
Since the reshuffle was mooted, two ministers have resigned over expenses scandals and another, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, clung on despite being implicated in a probe into alleged illegal party funding.
The government has stumbled forward stubbornly, but its leader has plumbed new depths of unpopularity and many observers view the reshuffle as Sarkozy's last chance to seize control of the agenda before 2012.
Sarkozy's own opinion poll approval ratings dropped to around 30 percent, as voters turn their backs on his domineering personal style or are outraged by austerity measures like his raising of the retirement age.
"It's indecent to suggest that things will change. The policies will still be those of Nicolas Sarkozy," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the Socialist opposition's parliamentary group.
"It's episode 125 of the soap opera. We're waiting for episode 126. There are so many episodes that we're losing track of what a government is supposed to be about," joked Green Party leader Cecile Duflot.
In recent months Sarkozy has taken a sharp swerve to the right on law and order and immigration issues, sparking international outrage with a drive to expel Roma Gypsies back to their homelands in Eastern Europe.
Observers expect the new cabinet to be shrunk from 37 members to 26 and to be dominated by members of Sarkozy's own right-wing majority party, the UMP, as he shores up his conservative support base in time for the election.
"It's legitimate that we begin this stage with a team that will doubtless be deeply re-thought," Families Minister Nadine Morano told Sunday's edition of the daily Le Parisien.
Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a high-profile former Socialist, is expected to go, and right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe confirmed Saturday that he expects to rejoin government as defence minister.
In recent weeks there had been widespread speculation that Sarkozy would attempt to mollify the centre-right by appointing his outgoing environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, in Fillon's place as prime minister.
But Fillon -- who has consistently enjoyed higher poll ratings than Sarkozy and has support within the majority UMP -- made it clear he wanted to stay, and it was he who met twice with the president on Saturday.
Saturday's drama marked the first time in the history of France's fifth republic that a prime minister has resigned over the weekend, and came as a surprise to some observers, who had expected Fillon to wait until Monday.
© 2010 AFP