Sarkozy sacrifices ministers to save key ally
By sacrificing two ministers mired in expenses scandals, French President Nicolas Sarkozy hoped to protect a bigger target, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, observers said Monday.
International development secretary Alain Joyandet resigned after he was criticised for spending 116,500 euros (157,000 dollars) on a private plane to take him to the Caribbean for a meeting on the Haiti earthquake.
Christian Blanc, who is responsible for the Paris region, was under fire for spending 12,000 euros (14,700 dollars) on Cuban cigars.
Virtually the entire press and political class saw Sunday's resignations as an attempt to take the spotlight off Woerth who is at the centre of a controversy over alleged tax avoidance by France's richest woman.
Sarkozy's approval ratings are at an all time low of 26 percent, and a poll conducted by Vivavoice and the daily Liberation just before the resignations found 64 percent of voters think the political class corrupt.
"The French government has run out of breath. It can't go on like this. Anywhere else, the government would have fallen and they'd have elections," said Socialist opposition lawmaker Pierre Moscovici on France Info radio.
The populist daily Le Parisien showed Woerth the direction of the door with a front page splash, "Two resignations to show an example". The Liberation daily asked if their sacrifice would "put out the fire under Woerth?"
Woerth, minister for work and pensions, is a key figure in Sarkozy's plans to get government reforms back on track after the financial crisis and prepare for his own 2012 re-election battle.
Next week, Woerth is to present a proposed law to reform France's pension rules and push back the legal retirement age, the centrepiece of Sarkozy's legislative programme.
He is also treasurer of Sarkozy's party, the right-wing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and thus charged with raising many of the funds that will be needed to pay for his boss's upcoming campaign.
These two roles make Woerth dear to the president, but a perceived conflict of interest between them -- and between the treasurer's job and his previous post as budget minister -- have undermined his position.
As budget minister, Woerth was charged with clamping down on tax evasion by France's richest personalities -- many of whom are UMP donors.
At the same time, his wife worked for the firm that managed the personal fortune of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
Last month, Woerth's name came up in conversations secretly taped by Bettencourt's butler -- and leaked to the media -- in which the cosmetics billionaire allegedly plotted to evade taxes on her fortune.
Woerth has strongly denied any wrongdoing, and he received the public backing of Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon, but the suggestion of having at the very least a conflict of interest hangs over him.
"It is not certain that the sacrificing of Blanc and Joyandet as a last defence will save Woerth," said commentator Bruno Jeudy in the traditionally pro-government daily Le Figaro on Monday.
"Though his case may strictly have nothing to do with the departure of Blanc and Joyandet, he is clearly weakened just a few days before he is due to present his pension reform bill to the government," he added.
Sarkozy has ordered ministers to cut down on spending on perks and entertainment -- and has cancelled his annual Bastille Day garden party -- but without yet impressing the public.
© 2010 AFP