French Leadership Turns the Cabinet Upside Down

Posted in Europe | 01-Apr-04 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: The New York Times

PARIS, March 31 — Desperate to recover from a humiliating electoral defeat for the governing party, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin turned his cabinet upside down on Wednesday, putting France's flamboyant foreign minister in charge of law and order and its law-and-order interior minister in charge of the economy.

In other moves, the ministers of finance, national education, culture, health and the environment and several deputy ministers were fired.

The cabinet shake-up came three days after President Jacques Chirac's conservative party was decisively defeated by the left-leaning opposition in regional elections and a day after Mr. Chirac decided not to fire Mr. Raffarin but ordered him to restructure the cabinet.

The announcement on Wednesday evening was made from the steps of Élysée Palace by a mid-level official who read the names of the appointments, which take effect immediately. Mr. Chirac is to explain his decision in a live television interview on Thursday evening.

The most dramatic and immediate impact of the shift will be twofold: a substantive and tonal change in foreign policy and a much more aggressive approach to solving the problems of France's troubled economy.

It also adds to the strategic depth of Dominique de Villepin, who goes from foreign minister to interior minister, and Nicolas Sarkozy, who moves from interior minister to finance minister, positioning either of them to move into the prime minister's job at a later time.

The shake-up was criticized by the leftist opposition. Julien Dray, the Socialist Party spokesman, called the change "worn down before it even gets started," adding, "the same policies will be implemented."

The lead editorial on Wednesday afternoon in Le Monde was scathing in criticizing Mr. Chirac's decision not to fire Mr. Raffarin as prime minister. "It is always dangerous to use trickery with the voters, thus with democracy," it said. "Jacques Chirac has just done it. At his risk and peril."

As foreign minister, Mr. de Villepin enraged the Bush administration with his relentless criticism of the American-led war and occupation in Iraq and struggled to realize a new activist, romantic vision of the world in which France would regain the centrality it lost long ago.

In the French political environment, Mr. de Villepin's appointment as interior minister is considered a promotion. He will be responsible for the country's security from the local to the national level, elections, and policies on international and domestic terrorism and immigration, including the integration of Muslim and Arab communities into French society.

The French counterintelligence service, the Directorate for Territorial Surveillance, also reports to the interior minister.

Mr. de Villepin, 50, who served as Mr. Chirac's chief of staff before becoming foreign minister, thus moves to stage center of French politics. In a midsize country like France, foreign policy is widely seen as a sideshow.

Mr. de Villepin's successor, a European Union commissioner, Michel Barnier, 53, is a former environment minister and lifelong Gaullist politician with close ties to Mr. Chirac.

Best known for successfully organizing the 1992 winter Olympics in his native Savoy without raising taxes when he was a parliamentary deputy, Mr. Barnier has had foreign policy experience in dealing with European regional issues, but little exposure to the United States and the rest of the world.

He has been less critical of the United States in public than Mr. de Villepin and views France's position in the world through the lens of Europe rather than from the country's permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council.

Mr. Barnier's first comments to France Inter radio minutes after his appointment underscore the extent to which his vision is more modest than that of Mr. de Villepin, who writes articles on Napoleon and poetry in his spare time.

"I am putting at the core of France's foreign dealings the construction of Europe, which is, at the moment, an extremely passionate and serious interest," he said, adding that he wants "to reinforce the influence of France in the European project."

Mr. Sarkozy, the newly appointed finance minister, replaces Francis Mer. He will be expected to reinvigorate France's weak economy, reduce unemployment (which hovers at 9.6 percent) and push through unpopular structural reforms of the economy with the same vigor he brought to cracking down on crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.

As the country's most popular politician on the right — outstripping even Mr. Chirac — and one who wants to be president one day, Mr. Sarkozy will now be vulnerable to the same relentless criticism that Mr. Raffarin faced. But Mr. Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian refugee whose full name is Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, is thought to have the tough personality and personal charisma needed for the job.

"The finance minister in France is sort of a second prime minister," said Roland Cayrol, a political scientist at the Institut d'Études Politiques of Paris. "Nothing gets done without his approval, so Sarkozy is getting what he wanted."

As budget minister in the early 1990's, Mr. Sarkozy, 49, oversaw substantial income tax cuts and was a firm advocate of reducing taxes.

But he was passed over as prime minister when Mr. Chirac was reelected president two years ago. Mr. Sarkozy has never been completely trusted since he threw his support behind Mr. Chirac's rival, Édouard Balladur, in the 1995 presidential campaign.

The other ministers, including Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie and Justice Minister Dominique Perben, have retained their jobs.