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French government reshufflelikely after weekend vote

Published on 26/03/2004

PARIS, March 26 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac of France will order a major cabinet reshuffle early next week after the second round of regional elections on Sunday in which the ruling centre-right is now reconciled to a resounding midterm defeat, political commentators said Friday.

However unless the rout is spectacular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who was in the firing line after the Union for a Popular Movement’s (UMP) first round drubbing last Sunday, is now regarded as likely to stay on as leader of the government – at least until the summer.

As campaigning drew to a close Friday for Sunday’s vote in France’s 22 metropolitan regions, the UMP was hoping to limit the damage caused by the March 21 first round in which it found itself squeezed between a resurgent Socialist opposition and a solidly entrenched far-right National Front (FN).

With the FN qualifying for the run-off in 17 regions, the arithmetic works against the government because it means the right-wing vote is split. The Socialist party (PS) has strong hopes of recapturing more than five of the 14 regions currently held by the centre-right.

The UMP faces an embarrassing defeat in Raffarin’s home region of Poitou-Charentes where in round one the Socialist candidate Segolene Royal – the partner of PS leader Francois Hollande – took 46 percent of the vote, and also in Burgundy, Brittany and Rhone-Alpes.

It hopes to salvage something by taking control of the region around Paris, where government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope was encouraged by the weak showing in round one of the FN candidate Marine Le Pen – daughter of the party’s veteran leader Jean-Marie.

The centre-right is appealing to its supporters who abstained in round one out of dissatisfaction with the government’s record to return to the fold, and also urging FN voters to think twice before casting a ballot that could let in the left.

However with opinion polls indicating that the punishment vote will hold up Sunday, the government appeared resigned to a second drubbing and attention focussed increasingly on what kind of cabinet reshuffle will allow Chirac to show he has drawn the necessary lessons.

Leaks to newspapers Friday indicated that the president is likely to keep Raffarin for the moment – mainly because as prime minister he can continue to serve as lightning-rod for public discontent during European elections in June and through controversal reforms of the social security system due by the summer.

Preserving Raffarin would also allow Chirac to avoid the question of what to do with the man who is increasingly seen as his rival ahead of presidential elections in 2007 – the highly energetic interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, commentators said.

Sarkozy has emerged strengthened from the regional debacle because he is the one minister whose record in office is seen as popular and effective, and he has won himself new favours inside the UMP by campaigning tirelessly for its candidates – many of them doomed to defeat – during the last week.

According to press comment, Sarkozy was likely to be given an enlarged ministerial remit in next week’s reshuffle, possibly including the key dossier of civil service reform. He could also win positions for his supporters inside the power structure of the UMP, which would be vital for any presidential bid.

For the rest Chirac was expected to give a more “social” appearance to his new cabinet, taking into account public unhappiness with reform policies that have been stigmatised by the left as overly “liberal” in inspiration.

Among ministers considered at risk in any reshuffle are Education Minister Luc Ferry and Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei. Those tipped for promotion include Jean-Louis Borloo, junior urban affairs minister whose enthusiasm and popular touch have impressed Chirac.


                                                              Subject: France news