Can the cabinet reshuffle save President Sarkozy?
After a tumultuous year for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he is now embarking on a cabinet reshuffle that was first mooted in May after a humiliating defeat of his government in local elections.
It has not been an easy year for French President Nicolas Sarkozy or his administration.
His approval ratings - at 30% - are at an all time low, and his government has endured a string of crises and controversies.
The reshuffle comes at a crucial moment for Sarkozy’s UMP party which needs to regain the trust of the electorate ahead of the 2012 presidential elections. The party has been battered by political scandals, the unpopular pension reform and the widely criticised crackdown on illegal Roma (gypsy) camps.
Eyeing the 2012 presidential vote
Now that the controversial pension bill, which raises the minimum retirement age from 60 to 62, has finally been passed into law, the French president feels he is finally in a position to ‘refresh’ his cabinet in anticipation of a tough fight to stay in power beyond 2012.
Sarkozy has packed his new cabinet with popular right wingers - like ex-Prime Minister Alain Juppé - while shedding the leftists, such as now ex-Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. The president has chosen to keep the ‘stars’ of his cabinet, including Finance Minister Christine Lagarde.
Sarkozy is looking to solidify support with the grassroots of the UMP ahead of the polls. The president's first move was to reinstate Prime Minister Francois Fillon, one of the few UMP leaders to enjoy genuine popular support among French conservative voters.
According to Stephane Rozes, president of French political think tank CAP, "Now that Fillon has been confirmed in his position, Sarkozy can concentrate on opening up his right-wing agenda on themes such as security and immigration" ahead of the 2012 election.
This move however may also be a case of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. Denis Jeambar, former editor-in-chief of “l’Express” newspaper, told FRANCE 24 that Sarkozy needed to keep his faithful partner in government close, “because if Sarkozy got rid of Fillon, he would immediately become the president’s natural rival in the 2012 presidential election.”
Meanwhile, the Socialists are sensing Sarkozy’s attempt to launch a fight back and have already fired off an opening salvo. The party swiftly attacked Sarkozy’s decision to stick with Fillon, arguing that it is an admission of weakness on his part.
"It's a president in trouble, who was looking for a way to bounce back, and in the end couldn't find one," Jean-Marc Ayrault, leader of the Socialist opposition's parliamentary group told French network BFM on Sunday.
Response to a drubbing at the polls
The reshuffle was first mooted back in March - after the UMP suffered a humiliating drubbing in regional elections - as a way of telling voters that the government understood their concerns.
But in June, Sarkozy insisted that he wanted to complete his controversial pension reform - which resulted in massive strikes and protests - before changing his government.
These plans were undermined when Labour Minister Eric Woerth became embroiled in allegations of illegal financial dealings with France’s richest woman Liliane Bettencourt.
Woerth, who spearheaded the controversial pension reforms, has been accused of taking illegal cash from Bettencourt to help fund Sarkozy’s successful 2007 presidential election bid.
The scandal dominated the headlines in France, and made Sarkozy’s administration appear to be one that pandered to the rich while embarking on a reform programme that would make the lives of millions of average French citizens that much harder.
Sarkozy took the opportunity of the cabinet reshuffle to ditch the unpopular Woerth, and thus draw a line under a damaging scandal that, despite his best efforts, would not go away.
UMP Senator Fabienne Keller told FRANCE 24: “The government is perceived by many as favouring the rich, especially in fiscal policy while too many ordinary French people feel abandoned.”
The French public will get to have their say in the polling booths in 2012.