Labour Minister Xavier Darcos (pictured) pays the price for the centre-right's calamitous defeat in French regional elections as President Nicolas Sarkozy carries out a minor cabinet reshuffle.
REUTERS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy rejigged his cabinet on Monday, sacking a senior minister in an effort to regain the initiative after his centre-right bloc suffered its worst election defeat in more than 50 years.
Labour Minister Xavier Darcos had been set to lead negotiations over a contested reform of the pensions system but his poor showing in Sunday's regional ballot wrecked his political credibility and he was forced to step down.
Sarkozy's office said in a statement that he would be replaced by Budget Minister Eric Woerth, who has won plaudits for his steady manner and assured handling of complex dossiers.
The overhaul of costly state pensions is expected to be launched later this year following negotiations with the unions, which have been buoyed by Sarkozy's rout in the regional vote.
Only one other official left the government on Monday and three new figures were brought in, with Sarkozy preferring to reserve a more radical reshuffle until closer to the 2012 presidential ballot, sources said.
The Socialist party and its allies won 54 percent of the vote on Sunday, its best election score since the birth of the Fifth Republic in 1958, as voters punished Sarkozy for the weak economy and growing unemployment.
An opinion poll released on Sunday said 71 percent of voters wanted the government to change its policies, while 54 percent hoped that Sarkozy, who has been criticised for his sometimes flashy presidential style, would become more statesmanlike.
The regional election has given the Socialists a strong launch pad for their assault on the presidency in 2012, but the party still suffers divisions and there is no obvious candidate to challenge Sarkozy, meaning further internal rows are likely.
"We won almost as many regions in the 2004 election and we didn't win the presidential election -- so we have to get organised," said former party chief Francois Hollande.
The Socialists dismissed the cabinet reshuffle as "purely cosmetic" and said France needed more profound changes.
CO2 tax to go?
One probable victim of the right's defeat looked certain to be an innovative tax on carbon dioxide emissions, which Sarkozy had vaunted as a weapon in the fight against global warming.
The original bill was struck down by France's top court last year, and Jean-Francois Cope, head of Sarkozy's party in parliament, said on Monday the project should be dropped until the rest of the European Union was ready to follow suit.
"We need to get back to basics," he said.
The government has insisted that it will focus on growth and jobs in the coming months, while pushing ahead with the delicate pension reform and a controversial shake-up of the legal system.
The powerful CGT union has called for a day of protest on Tuesday, hoping that the election losses will persuade the government not to try to raise the retirement age from 60 years.
Woerth will be replaced as budget minister by Francois Baroin, who is close to ex-president Jacques Chirac.
His promotion was seen as an effort to appease the old conservative guard in France, which has been largely overlooked since Sarkozy swept to power in 2007.
In another effort to silence critics on the right, Sarkozy also nominated Georges Tron, an ally of former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, as junior minister for the civil service.
Villepin, a sworn enemy of the president, is set to announce later this week that he is setting up a rival centre-right party and Tron's appointment deprives him of a potential ally.
The final change saw another conservative, Marc-Philippe Daubresse, become minister for youth, effectively replacing Martin Hirsch, who came from the centre-left and was seen as a symbol of Sarkozy's drive to hire talents from the opposition.
The president was due to make his first public announcement following the election slump after Wednesday's cabinet meeting.
Date created : 2010-03-22