Sarkozy to name new government with eye on 2012

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France's President Nicolas Sarkozy was to name a new cabinet line-up Sunday hoping to reinvigorate his government and launch his undeclared 2012 re-election campaign.

Sarkozy cleared the decks late on Saturday by accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his government, and aides said he would rapidly reappoint the same man at the head of a reshuffled team

He had first signalled in March that he planned to renew his cabinet, and there has been mounting political tension since he confirmed this in June, as ministers jostled for places around the cabinet table.

Since the reshuffle was mooted two ministers have resigned over expenses scandals and another, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, clung on despite being implicated in a probe into alleged illegal party funding.

The government has stumbled forward stubbornly, but its leader has plumbed new depths of unpopularity and many observers view the reshuffle as Sarkozy's last chance to seize control of the agenda before 2012.

Sarkozy's own opinion poll approval ratings dropped to around 30 percent, as voters turn their backs on his domineering personal style or are outraged by austerity measures like his raising of the retirement age.

In recent months he has taken a sharp swerve to the right on law and order and immigration issues, sparking international outrage with a drive to expel Roma Gypsies back to their homelands in Eastern Europe.

Observers expect the new cabinet to be smaller and to be dominated by members of Sarkozy's own right-wing majority party, the UMP, as he shores up his conservative support base in time for the election.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a high-profile former Socialist, is expected to go, and right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe confirmed Saturday that he expects to rejoin government as defence minister.

In recent weeks there had been widespread speculation that Sarkozy would attempt to mollify the centre-right by appointing his outgoing environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, in Fillon's place as prime minister.

But Fillon -- who has consistently enjoyed higher poll ratings than Sarkozy and has support within the majority UMP -- made it clear he wanted to stay, and it was he who met twice with the president on Saturday.

Borloo also saw Sarkozy, but it was Fillon who left the president's Elysee Palace offices at around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT), shortly before the presidency released the news that set the reshuffle wheels in motion.

Aides said Borloo, the government number two, has been offered the foreign or justice ministries or an expanded and more powerful environment ministry.

"Jean-Louis Borloo is studying the offers calmly," one aide said.

Several women were expected to be appointed and the government downsized to 26 members from 37.

There is no power vacuum at the heart of the French state, however, as each minister will continue to exercise his or her responsibilities until successors are named.

© 2010 AFP

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