Chirac picks 'international novice' as foreign minister

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The Independent Online

Jacques Chirac, the French President, has dismissed his foreign minister, Michel Barnier, in a government reshuffle intended to win back voter confidence after his crushing defeat over the European Union constitution.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, a 52-year-old former health minister who is loyal to M. Chirac but a novice in international affairs, takes over the position. He faces the task of maintaining France's influence in the EU despite Sunday's referendum defeat, which has left M. Chirac's popularity at an all-time low and may have wrecked his chances of winning a third term as president in 2007.

In a government list read out by an aide on the steps of Chirac's Elysée Palace, the head of state confirmed presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy in his post as interior minister. M. Sarkozy, the ambitious head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party, is the government's number two under Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, a Chirac loyalist.

Finance Minister Thierry Breton, Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie, Budget Minister Jean-François Copé and Farm Minister Dominique Bussereau kept their posts.

"It's a simple game of musical chairs," the Communist Party said. "There's nothing to expect from this new government which completely ignores the will expressed by the people."

Chirac has ordered M. de Villepin's slimmed-down cabinet to focus on voters' main concern - cutting unemployment.

M. de Villepin will outline his policies to parliament on June 8 and has given himself 100 days to restore voters' confidence.

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