Cowed Sarkozy reaches out to his enemies in post-election reshuffle

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The Independent Online

An emabttled President Sarkozy ordered a government reshuffle last night as discontent with his presidency soared to new heights both with the public and in his own centre-right party.

After calamitous results in mid-term regional elections at the weekend, one opinion poll yesterday suggested that 58 per cent of French people believed that Mr Sarkozy should not even run for re-election in 2012. Senior members of his own party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP)– which Mr Sarkozy had utterly dominated until last year – also wondered aloud whether the centre-right should consider looking for another presidential candidate.

In an attempt to heal the rifts within a party that he has long been accused of treating with contempt, President Sarkozy yesterday offered ministerial positions to young politicians who are loyal to his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, or to his hated rival, the former prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

Mr Villepin meanwhile announced that he would be launching a new political grouping in June which would challenge President Sarkozy for the centre-right UMP presidential nomination next year.

The principal victim in last night's reshuffle was a Sarkozy loyalist, Xavier Darcos, 62, the employment minister, who paid for his poor showing as the UMP candidate in the Bordeaux region on Sunday. He was replaced by another Sarkozy loyalist, Eric Woerth, 44, who ceded his own position as budget minister to one of the young turks of the Chirac-Villepin wing of the party, François Baroin, 44. Another Villepin supporter, Georges Tron, 42, also entered the government as minister for the civil service.

Such concessions to his critics within the centre-right – something that the President has previously scorned – are proofs of how weak Mr Sarkozy's position has suddenly become. His reputation as a can-do politician has been undermined partly by the global recession. But he is also accused of muddling the message of his original agenda for social and economic reform and losing touch with grassroots opinion.

The President was badly damaged by the episode last year of the aborted promotion of his 23-year-old son, Jean to a senior political position – at a time when many French 23-year-olds cannot find unpaid work experience.

In Sunday's second round of the regional elections, the centre Left and Greens took 54 per cent of the vote nationwide and 21 of the 22 regions in metropolitan France. Mr Sarkozy's centre-right party and allies scored a miserable 35 per cent and the far right National Front just over nine per cent.

Another departure from the government last night – at his own request – was Martin Hirsch, the high commissioner for social solidarity, a symbol of Mr Sarkozy's strategy of opening his government to figures on the Left.

The President faces further challenges today when public-sector workers strike, marching in protest against job cuts and a planned increase in their retirement age (which varies from 50 to 60). There will also be poisonous criticism of Mr Sarkozy's record in a meeting of UMP members of parliament, who want him to abandon his plans for a green, or "carbon", tax and scrap his policy of "ouverture" to the Left.

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