Raffarin plays last cardswith major cabinet reshuffle
PARIS, March 31 (AFP) - Three days after France's centre-right took a beating in regional polls, the new government of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is to be unveiled Wednesday, with a major shake-up expected.
President Jacques Chirac’s office said the announcement would come Wednesday afternoon but did not indicate a specific time. Chirac’s chief of staff Philippe Bas will reveal the new government line-up at the Elysee palace.
On Tuesday, Chirac asked Raffarin to stay on despite the poll fiasco — which saw voters punish the unpopular prime minister for his hard-to-swallow public sector reforms — but ordered him to reshuffle his government.
The two held talks early Wednesday at the Elysee to discuss the new make-up of the cabinet, Chirac’s aides said. Raffarin also met with several top members of the governing Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) at his Matignon offices.
Chirac’s UMP was humiliated in Sunday’s regional elections, which resulted in the left-wing opposition led by the Socialists (PS) seizing control of 24 of France’s 26 regional assemblies.
The polls were seen as a key mid-term test for Raffarin’s two-year-old government, whose mandate runs out in 2007, and the centre-right’s stunning defeat threw its reform policies into question.
Junior transport minister Dominique Bussereau – who is close to Raffarin and tipped for a promotion – said the new government would be made up of a “very political team of men and women with real experience in political life.”
His comment was seen as implying that a number of non-career politicians who were appointed to give the French cabinet a broader public appeal two years ago could be removed from a reshuffled government made up of seasoned veterans.
Among the ministers seen as the most vulnerable are Education Minister Luc Ferry – who could be replaced by Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon – Finance Minister Francis Mer and Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei.Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy was widely favored to replace Mer, with Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin stepping into Sarkozy’s shoes, according to several press reports.
Sarkozy, who has until now enjoyed broad public support as the government’s point man on law and order, served as junior budget minister in the 1990s and was seen as capable of helping respond to public ire over economic reforms and high unemployment.
Michel Barnier, the European Union commissioner responsible for regional policy, will “probably” replace de Villepin at the Quai d’Orsay, European Commission president Romano Prodi told the European parliament on Wednesday.
In a press conference after his surprise comments to the Strasbourg assembly, Prodi underlined that no formal decision had been made but paid tribute to Barnier, saying it had been good to work with him.
Michele Alliot-Marie was expected to stay on as defense minister.Junior urban affairs minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose popular touch and enthusiasm have impressed Chirac, could become the head of a new “superministry” for social affairs, media reports suggested.
Bussereau, government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope and small businesses minister Renaud Dutreil were also tipped for promotion.
The Socialists roundly criticized Chirac’s decision to keep Raffarin, with party leader Francois Hollande saying that the French president “has chosen to pursue the same policies and the same results, with the same team.”
“It’s not just a mistake, it’s plain wrong,” Hollande told reporters.
Subject: French news