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The race for the coveted prime minister's chair

Text by Ségolène ALLEMANDOU

Latest update : 2010-11-11

After eight months of speculation, a reshuffle of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s cabinet is expected before the end of November. takes a look at the frontrunners and outsiders in the race to be named France’s next prime minister.

Jean-Louis Borloo, Michèle Alliot-Marie, Christine Lagarde, Luc Chatel, François Baroin, Bruno Le Maire, and the list goes on. In the span of six months, the French press has breezed through a multitude of potential candidates who could replace current Prime Minister François Fillon when President Nicolas Sarkozy shakes up his cabinet in the next few weeks. The consensus has designated the current prime minister and Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo as frontrunners.

Sources close to the president have suggested that the rejigging of the cabinet could be announced in mid-November, with some insiders even specifying the date of November 22 (one day after the NATO summit). Sarkozy is hoping that the reshuffle will give him a shot of new momentum after seeing his approval ratings steadily decline to 30 percent. The passage of one of Sarkozy’s signature reforms, which raised the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, sparked mass strikes and student protests across the country in recent weeks. Above all, Sarkozy is counting on the cabinet changes to jumpstart his preparations for a 2012 re-election campaign.

The frontrunners

  • François Fillon

Will the current prime minister be extending his tenure? Once thought to be on his way out (in September, he openly distanced himself from his boss by declaring in an interview that Sarkozy was not his “mentor”), Fillon found his way back to the top of the list by defending his record: “I believe in continuity when it comes to our political reforms, because I don’t think we gain anything by changing course in the middle of action”, Fillon said. “And because getting France back on its feet is a long-term effort”.

Fillon’s image as a disciplined, measured politician has been relatively well received by the French public and could be an asset for Sarkozy going into the 2012 presidential election. Not even the political crisis Sarkozy is widely seen to be facing has managed to chip away at Fillon’s favourability numbers, which stand at 43 percent for the month of November. Another survey shows that 47 percent of French people would like to see him hold on to the position, while only 22 percent prefer his main rival, Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo. The current prime minister also enjoys the support of French lawmakers; he is regularly greeted by standing ovations when he speaks before the National Assembly.

If Fillon holds on to his position, Sarkozy will probably want to change things up by reshuffling other prominent ministerial positions. In France, it is the prime minister who proposes his choices for the other ministries to the president – which explains why several potential candidates have recently been trying to rally Fillon’s support.

  • Jean-Louis Borloo

The clear favourite at the end of the summer, the current ecology minister, 59, is now being overtaken by Fillon in the final leg of the race leading to the prime minister’s office. The selection of Borloo would be seen as a change in style: Borloo is considered a more original, jovial character than Fillon, and sometimes more prone to gaffes. Borloo began his career as a lawyer, then went on to become president of the Valenciennes football club in the north of France, and later, mayor of the commune of Valenciennes itself. He is known to have a talent for drawing differing opinions around a consensus, and to make middle-of-the-night phone calls summoning his teams for a meeting.

The ambitious Borloo has racked up cabinet positions over the course of his time in politics: he was minister of urban development from 2002 to 2004, minister of labour in 2005, minister of finance for one month in 2007, and minister of sustainable development from 2007 to 2010. In order to boost his chances of securing the prime minister’s chair, Borloo has been playing the social reform card. “Social justice is a moral and human obligation”, he affirmed in press interviews. Following the conflict over pension reform, he positioned himself as the man who could reconcile unions with the French government. Having successfully organised a summit devoted to environmental solutions, he intends to do the same on fiscal matters.

Under fire from the Fillon camp, Borloo has denounced the low blows he says are coming from his rival. But Fillon is not alone in his open war for the prime minister's post: he has been backed by former and current presidential advisors who have qualified Borloo as an “expert in social issues”.

Borloo’s bid for the job has also entailed a makeover, complete with new hair cut and spiffy suits. Perhaps most advantageous of all is his habit of quoting President Sarkozy in his speeches.

If Borloo takes over as prime minister, Sarkozy could take advantage of the centrist and environmentally conscious voters who back the politician to expand his base ahead of the 2012 presidential election. But Borloo recently lost points by minimising the severity of the fuel shortage that France suffered during the recent strikes; the ecology minister was accused of communicating imprecise figures. If he does end up choosing Borloo, it would be considered a significant change-up, and Sarkozy could consequently settle for a lighter reshuffle of other top ministerial positions.

The outsiders

  • François Baroin

“He knows how much I count on him”, the French president declared in early November, referring to the 45-year-old budget minister.

His nomination as prime minister would be seen as an overture toward supporters of former President Jacques Chirac (Baroin occupied various cabinet positions under Chirac), Sarkozy’s long-time nemesis.

  • Bruno Le Maire

Also a relatively young candidate, at 41, the current agriculture minister who once served as advisor to former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin knows the workings of the French government well.

His possibly fatal flaw is that he is not known by the wider French public.

Date created : 2010-11-10


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