Foreign minister tipped to tumble in cabinet reshuffle
His popularity dwindling, France's President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected to announce a minor cabinet reshuffle and address the nation Sunday evening. Gaffe-prone Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie is widely tipped to face the axe.
AFP - President Nicolas Sarkozy is out to rescue France's foreign policy, left voiceless by revolutions in the Arab world, with the expected axing of his foreign minister Sunday and an address to the nation.
Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, 64, the main target of attacks from all quarters in recent weeks, is to tender her resignation once she returns from Kuwait, a minister said.
In order to explain the minor reshuffle and his perspective on the revolts rocking the Middle East and North Africa, Sarkozy is then to address the nation at 1900 GMT, with his popularity lower than ever in opinion polls.
Several sources said that Alliot-Marie is to be replaced by Defence Minister Alain Juppe, 65, who already served as France's top diplomat from 1993 to 1995.
"In an emergency, Sarkozy looks to Alain Juppe," wrote the Journal du Dimanche weekly, calling Juppe a "saviour" and "second prime minister."
The reshuffle comes only three months after the last one, on November 14, which was supposed to give Sarkozy the team with which he could fight the looming 2012 presidential election.
But the Arab uprisings, which have deposed friends of Paris, including Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, caught French diplomacy off guard and have affected the government's overall functioning.
Alliot-Marie has been the focal point for criticism. First of all she made a not very diplomatic offer for France to help Tunisian riot police in their task of quelling popular revolt there on January 11.
Then it turned out that she had holidayed in former colony Tunisia during the uprising, using the private jet of a businessman allegedly linked to Ben Ali's regime, from whom her parents also bought a stake in a company.
For Sarkozy, the need to create a new platform from which he can relaunch himself during his presidency of the G8 and G20 has become urgent.
The Socialist opposition said Sunday that Alliot-Marie's expected departure was "a fairly logical end" but "the trouble with French foreign policy is Nicolas Sarkozy."
Sarkozy's "foreign policy has marginalised us not only in the Arab world but also in sub-Saharan Africa," said Socialist party spokesman Benoit Hamon, because of what he called a "failure" and "complete fiasco".
Criticism has even come from within the French diplomatic corps.
An open letter from a group of unnamed diplomats published in Le Monde last week slammed the "amateurism" and "impulsiveness" of Sarkozy's foreign policy, while former ambassador Jean-Christophe Rufin on Sunday criticised the "damage" done to France's image.
Alliot-Marie herself insisted on Saturday that she was fully committed to her job, saying in Kuwait that "you can see clearly -- I am working; I am 100 percent committed as far as being foreign minister."
"I will not comment on rumours from Paris," she added, after barely three months in the job. "It doesn't matter what happens once I land in Paris."
Several names have been floated to replace Juppe at the defence ministry. They include the head of the ruling UMP party in the senate, Gerard Longuet, former premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin or even current Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux, whose job could go to Sarkozy advisor Claude Gueant.
As for Alliot-Marie's partner, minister for parliamentary relations Patrick Ollier, he said on Friday that he would also quit if she lost her job.