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Cabinet shakeup replaces foreign, defence ministers

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reshuffled his cabinet Sunday night for the second time in three months, naming Alain Juppé to replace embattled Foreign Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. Juppé will hand his defence portfolio to Gerard Longuet.


AFP - President Nicolas Sarkozy tried Sunday to rescue France's rudderless foreign policy, axing his scandal-hit foreign minister, who was left floundering in the wake of uprisings in the Arab world.

Foreign minister Michele Alliot-Marie, 64, resigned, still insisting she had broken no laws in accepting flights and hospitality from an ally of the Tunisian strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali just before he was overthrown.

Sarkozy moved quickly to replace her with former prime minister and outdoing defence minister Alain Juppe, striving to restore France's reputation with the North African peoples revolting against their leaders.

"On the other side of the Mediterranean, an immense upheaval is underway," Sarkozy declared, in a brief televised address.

"By setting democracy and freedom against all forms of dictatorship, these revolutions open a new era. This change is an historic one, and we should not be afraid of it," he said.

"We should have one goal: to help these people who have chosen to be free."

The reshuffle came only three months after Sarkozy's last one, on November 14, which was supposed to give him the winning 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 Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, caught French diplomacy off guard and undermined the government.

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 emerged 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.

"I ask you to accept my resignation," she wrote in a letter which begins with a handwritten "Dear Nicolas" and a copy of which was seen by AFP

"Since several weeks, I have been the target of political attacks and then in the media, using, to create suspicion, counter-truths and generalisations," wrote an apparently unbowed Alliot-Marie.

"For the last two weeks, it is my family's private life that has been suffering real harassment at the hands of certain media.

"I cannot accept that some people use this cabal to try to make people believe in a weakening of France's international policy."

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 ahead of her resignation that Alliot-Marie's 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 diplomats published in Le Monde slammed the "amateurism" and "impulsiveness" of Sarkozy's policy. Former ambassador Jean-Christophe Rufin criticised the "damage" done to France's image.

Juppe will be replaced as defence minister by Gerard Longuet, the leader of Sarkozy's centre right party in the French Senate, the president announced.

Sarkozy's chief of staff, Claude Gueant, will become interior minister, charged with restoring the government's reputation as tough on crime with a view to the expected 2012 re-election bid.


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