PM Fillon and Sarkozy prepare reshuffle after poll defeat

French Prime Minister François Fillon (pictured) and President Nicolas Sarkozy hold talks Monday after their UMP party's decisive defeat in regional polls. Sarkozy is expected to reshuffle his cabinet amid pressure for a shift in direction.


AFP - French President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared on Monday to shake up his government after a humiliating defeat by the left in regional elections pressured him to recast his reform programme.

Sarkozy met with his Prime Minister Francois Fillon to plan the cabinet reshuffle, while tensions surfaced in his party, with former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin calling for a confidence vote on the president's reforms.

The second-round regional poll on Sunday left Sarkozy's right-wing UMP in charge of only one of France's mainland regions in the last ballot-box test of Sarkozy's popularity before the 2012 presidential vote.

The president's chief of staff Claude Gueant said Fillon and Sarkozy were planning a "technical reshuffle" of the cabinet -- signalling a new start in Sarkozy's campaign to persuade France to swallow difficult reforms.

Sarkozy "expected these results to be disappointing. He said before the regionals that an election always has a meaning and a message. He has decided to hear it," Gueant told AFP.

The results were "a big wake-up call for quick and effective action" to tackle unemployment and other effects of the economic crisis, he added.

Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on promises to boost France's economy and get people back to work, but last year's recession has driven unemployment up to 10 percent, its highest level in a decade.

The next big hurdle on his agenda is a plan to raise the retirement age and reform the generous pensions of some public sector workers -- measures that looked set for tough resistance even before Sunday's defeat.

Fillon admitted that the election result showed "we have not been convincing," speaking Sunday after the Socialist-led opposition beat the UMP by around 54 percent to 36.

"This is a disappointment for the governing party. I take my share of responsibility," he said.

The results, announced by the interior ministry, leave the UMP in control of only one of France's 22 mainland regions, the right-wing stronghold of Alsace.

The far-right National Front won more than nine percent of the vote overall, confirming a comeback for the anti-immigrant party.

"The French have expressed their rejection of the politics of the president and the government," Socialist party leader Martine Aubry said, calling on the left to unite behind a programme to retake power at a national level.

A former member of ex-president Jacques Chirac's government, Francois Baroin, also held talks with Sarkozy at the Elysee presidential palace on Monday morning.

UMP sources told AFP that Baroin was expected to replace Budget Minister Eric Woerth, a nod to the centre-right members of the party. The sources said Woerth would take over as education minister from Xavier Darcos.

Le Monde newspaper named several others likely to be removed, including Martin Hirsch, who holds an anti-poverty portfolio and has been in Sarkozy's government since the start, and Economic Recovery Minister Patrick Devedjian.

Sunday's result was another blow to a president whose personal approval ratings are at an all-time low and will likely increase pressure within his own party for a change of direction.

A survey by pollster CSA for Le Parisien newspaper, published Monday, showed 54 percent of respondents agreeing Sarkozy should adopt a "more presidential style" and a third wanted him to "slow the pace of his reforms".

"We have to commit to something specific... three of four big reforms on which we are united," ex-premier Raffarin said Monday on Canal+ television, calling for parliament to hold a confidence vote.

"We want concrete changes for the French people."

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