Sarkozy goes prime time to sell agenda to French

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy went on prime time television Tuesday to address the French people after reshuffling his cabinet, laying out his conservative agenda ahead of a 2012 presidential vote.

The interview on three French channels was aimed at setting out Sarkozy's political roadmap following the weekend reshuffle during which he renamed Francois Fillon as prime minister and as he assumes the leadership of the G20.

Speaking in the lavish surroundings of his Elysee Palace office, Sarkozy said he chose Fillon -- a surprise choice after months of political jockeying -- because he was "the best prime minister for France".

"When I asked Francois Fillon to continue, it's because I have great trust in him, because he's very competent, because we've worked together for years without a cloud," Sarkozy told the three journalists interviewing him.

"A certain amount of stability helps to soothe a country that is in need."

Sunday's reshuffle resulted in a leaner, more conservative government, with several centre-right and left-wing ministers fired to produce a team more likely to fall in behind Sarkozy's deficit-cutting austerity agenda.

The new cabinet has been criticised as "a campaign team" ahead of the early 2012 presidential election, and Sarkozy said he would only announce if he would stand or not in late 2011.

The reshuffle came after months of intrigue and mass street protests against Sarkozy's extension of the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, the key plank of his presidency aimed at reducing France's debt.

"I remain convinced that we must be open, this is not a partisan government, this is a tightened government," Sarkozy said.

The reshuffle came hot on the heels of Sarkozy's return from the G20 summit in Seoul, where he took over the group's leadership, and the president repeated his call for global financial reform.

"We can no longer stay in this monetary mess... We need a new international monetary system," he said, confirming that key player China would host a conference on the matter early next year "to see if we can move forward".

The wide-ranging television interview was Sarkozy's first since July when his government was embroiled in a multi-layered scandal involving then labour minister Eric Woerth and L'Oreal billionaire heiress Liliane Bettencourt.

The task of explaining the new cabinet's policies was a difficult one, with an opinion poll on Monday saying that 64 percent of French already did not trust the new government.

It will be another eight days before Fillon on November 24 formally puts the government's policies to lawmakers, with some observers seeing Sarkozy's interview as a way of showing he remains the ultimate authority.

Fillon has said it was normal for the head of state to "set his priorities and put them himself to the French people", but nevertheless on Tuesday he afternoon laid out his own government priorities at the National Assembly.

"My government's absolute priority will remain the fight against deficits, reducing debt, reducing public spending," Fillon said, "because it's a European undertaking... a necessity to ensure France's credibility alongside Germany."

Fillon was considered the big winner of Sunday's reshuffle, and an Ifop opinion poll carried out just ahead of the weekend for Paris-Match showed the prime minister's popularity remains on the rise while Sarkozy's drops.

Asked which of the two men they preferred, 71 percent of respondents said Fillon, 21 percent Sarkozy and eight percent neither. A similar poll in September had 68 percent preferring Fillon and 25 percent for Sarkozy.

However, both men's overall popularity dipped further in November, Sarkozy dropping three points to 35 percent, Fillon six points to 58 percent, according to the same poll.

© 2010 AFP

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