PARIS, Nov 15 – French Prime Minister Francois Fillon emerged at the head of a more right-wing government, his status enhanced Monday, as President Nicolas Sarkozy regrouped for a possible 2012 re-election bid.
Despite months of intrigue in the run-up to the reshuffle, Sarkozy retained his big hitters, while shifting in favour of a loyal team more likely to fall in behind his government\’s deficit-cutting austerity agenda.
And for many observers, the prime minister returned in a far stronger position, ready to work more as a partner of Sarkozy than his assistant.
Under a strengthened Fillon, Finance Minister Christine Lagarde and Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux remained in their jobs, while several other Sarkozy loyalists were promoted or saw their responsibilities widened.
Meanwhile, centre-right Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo – the number two figure in the outgoing government and until recently a frontrunner to become prime minister himself – announced he was stepping down.
Popular Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a former Socialist minister, was replaced by Gaullist Justice Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, and right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe returned to take over defence.
But in an early sign of splits in Sarkozy\’s support base, the outgoing defence minister, centre-right leader Herve Morin, denounced the new cabinet line-up as a right-wing "campaign team" in which he had no place.
"France needs pluralism, and democracy needs balance. Since April 2010 the head of state has not agreed with this proposition, and so for my part I can\’t remain in government," said Morin, who is mulling running against Sarkozy.
The new cabinet will also be less ethnically diverse, with the loss of urban development minister Fadela Amara, who is of North African descent, and sports minister Rama Yade, who was born in Senegal.
There are 31 ministers in the new team, down from 37 before.
The outgoing head of Sarkozy\’s UMP party, Xavier Bertrand, was named labour minister, replacing fellow Sarkozy loyalist Eric Woerth, who has been implicated in a long-running party funding scandal.
Fillon vowed to boost France\’s anaemic recovery and cut unemployment, and praised what he boasted was the commitment of Sarkozy and his right-wing parliamentary majority to stick by unpopular but necessary reforms.
Socialist leader Martine Aubry slammed the reshuffle as a "blunt refusal" to address the concerns of the French electorate, after two months in which hundreds of thousands have protested against Sarkozy\’s pension reforms.
"The French were anxiously expecting a change of policy," she said. "Tonight, it\’s clear – they were ignored."
Analyst Roland Cayrol of the Sciences Po school in Paris said the limited nature of the reshuffle, and in particular Sarkozy\’s failure to replace Fillon, showed the weakness of the formerly all-powerful "omnipresident".
"There was a reshuffle simply because the president wanted to change the prime minister to show he was entering the closing straight with a second wind, with change … and he ended up choosing the same man," he marvelled.
Several French newspapers also argued that Fillon\’s reappointment showed not just his rising stock, but Sarkozy\’s relative weakness.
"The president\’s wishes, as hyper as he might be, are no longer orders," noted the regional daily La Montagne.
Sarkozy had first signalled in March he planned to reshuffle his cabinet, and there has been mounting political tension since he confirmed this in June, as Fillon jostled with several other candidates for his job.
The government pushed on, forcing through a unpopular hike in the pension age, but its leader plumbed new depths of unpopularity and many see the reshuffle as Sarkozy\’s last chance to regain momentum before 2012.
Sarkozy\’s own opinion poll approval ratings have dropped to around 30 percent, as voters turn their backs on his domineering personal style or are outraged by austerity measures like the retirement reform.
A new poll, conducted by Viavoice for the left-wing daily Liberation just before the reshuffle began, showed Sarkozy\’s popularity flatlining at its historically low level. Fillon beat him by 20 percentage points.
In recent months Sarkozy 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.
The president, who came to power in 2007 and named a broad-based cabinet including centrists and former leftists, is now seen as seeking to consolidate his conservative base ahead of his upcoming re-election fight.