The return of Fillon, Sarkozy's discreet and popular premier
As discreet as Nicolas Sarkozy is exuberant, Prime Minister Francois Fillon was the big winner in Sunday's reshuffle, emerging unsackable from the French president's shadow.
"You don't gain anything by changing horse in the middle of the race... France's recovery requires staying power," Fillon, 56, said in November when environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo appeared favourite to succeed him.
In the job since Sarkozy became president in May 2007, despite some minor reshuffles, Fillon nevertheless has an occasionally difficult relationship with the president.
From day one Sarkozy has been clear that he himself would govern, being present on all fronts with Fillon relegated to an "assistant" whose decisions were constantly short-circuited by influential presidential advisors.
But, while the president's popularity has plunged, Fillon remains popular among voters as well as politicians on the right and some opinion polls show that today he would be a better bet than Sarkozy in a presidential race.
The antithesis of Sarkozy's hurried temperament and taste for luxury, Fillon is a quiet man who talks about his attachment to the countryside and is considered efficient if sometimes overly cautious.
But beneath his courteous exterior and wise appearance, Fillon is a born competitor, says Christine Kelly, who wrote a biography of the son of a notary and an historian who became MP at age 27.
A reformer, obsessed with reducing deficits, is capable of emerging from under his brooding eyebrows to make shock declarations. A few months after his nomination in 2007 he said he was at the head of a bankrupt state.
A lawyer by training, Fillon was born in Sarthe in western France and is married to a Welsh woman, Penelope, with whom he has five children.
His wife says she feels more comfortable at their family home at Sable-sur-Sarthe than in the official Hotel Matignon residence in Paris.
Fillon is always impeccably groomed, like a conservative provincial dignitary, and in his spare time he likes to read the Romantic literature of Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand, walk in the mountains or race cars.
Politically, Fillon represents the one nation branch of the French right, previously embodied in Gaullism. He voted 'no' to the European Union's 1992 Maastricht treaty before evolving into a more open position.
During his time in charge of several ministerial portfolios, including social affairs and education, Fillon acquired a reputation as a reformer who remains impassive in adversity. He passed a key pension reform in 2003.
He was kicked out of former president Jacques Chirac's government two years later, pushing him into the arms of his former rival, Sarkozy.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has never been my mentor," Fillon said sharply as recently as September, explaining that their closeness was the result of an alliance made ahead of the 2007 presidential election.
The relationship was tested almost to breaking point in recent monthss, as Sarkozy contemplated replacing him with the more ebullient figure of environment minister Jean-Louis Borloo.
But the president blinked first, and Fillon can now look forward to remaining prime minister until the end of Sarkozy's first five-year term, now more as a partner than an assistant.
© 2010 AFP