French reshuffle set to stick to trusted heavyweights

* Reshuffle to keep PM Fillon, conservative heavyweights

* Sarkozy aiming to shore up support base, avoid surprises

By Catherine Bremer

PARIS, Nov 10 (BestGrowthStock) – Victorious in his pension reform
battle but deeply unpopular, President Nicolas Sarkozy will soon
unveil a “play-it-safe” cabinet reshuffle aimed at galvanising
his core conservative support base.

Sarkozy, whose ratings have dipped below 30 percent 18
months before an election where he could seek a second term,
will stick with proven politicians and avoid big surprises as he
switches a handful of ministers next week.

After dangling the possibility that he could switch his
prime minister for an earthy energy minister with better social
credentials, Sarkozy is now set to hold onto Francois Fillon, a
capable ally who opinion polls show is well liked by the ruling
UMP party’s centre-right support base.

“The novelty may be that in fact there is no major change
and France keeps a prime minister on for the duration,” said
Jerome Fourquet, deputy director at pollster IFOP.

“Rather than a zig-zag in politics and a change of course,
this is about a lasting course of action,” he said.

Sarkozy is stuck with sagging ratings and loathed by
millions of French for putting off their retirement by two
years, although he has scored points with financial markets and
his party for standing firm through months of union-led protests
to pass a law aimed at curbing a swelling pension deficit.

After swiftly signing the reform into law hours after it won
Constitutional Council approval on Tuesday, Sarkozy is now
banking on giving his cabinet a second wind ahead of a 2012
election that will pit him against a resurgent left.

Analysts say the no-risks reshuffle will also be aimed at
keeping a solid team in place to run things while he is busy
working on an ambitious overhaul of the international monetary
system as France takes over the G20 presidency from next week.

STEADY HAND

Sarkozy may seek to please old-school conservatives by
bringing back Alain Juppe, a heavyweight former prime minister
under President Jacques Chirac, as head of a key ministry such
as defence, according to people close to the president.

Christine Lagarde, whose articulate financial discourse in
fluent English has made her an ambassador for France in global
financial markets, could stay as economy minister or move to the
foreign ministry with a special brief to handle G20 affairs.

In that case, Budget Minister Francois Baroin — also close
to Chirac and liked by dyed-in-the-wool conservatives — could
step up to the finance ministry, according to French media.

Sarkozy, whose popularity has been hit by anger over
economic gloom and a political favours scandal involving
France’s richest woman, said months ago that he would rejig his
cabinet once the pension reform was in place.

Government sources now say he could unveil the changes as
early as Monday, after he returns from the Group of 20 summit in
Seoul. French daily Le Figaro said he would likely explain them
to the nation in a televised address next Thursday.

France takes over the G20 presidency next week, and Fillon
is widely regarded as more than competent to run national
affairs while Sarkozy is tied up in international meetings.

Fillon is also more highly regarded in opinion polls than
Energy Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, who Sarkozy briefly
considered bringing in as a new prime minister who could open
social dialogue with unions.

As Fillon was photographed this week in a beaming
double-handed handshake with Sarkozy, Borloo hinted he could
leave the government if not promoted.

Last week Fillon made it clear he wanted to stay, saying,
during comments on the government’s economic reform drive: “I
don’t think you gain anything by changing course halfway through
… getting France back on its feet requires time.”

Meanwhile Juppe, currently mayor of the city of Bordeaux,
told reporters there that he has been friends with Sarkozy for
many years and would be happy to join his government.

Sarkozy will be in Seoul on Thursday and Friday but has a
handy window for the reshuffle announcement at the start of next
week before he travels to Lisbon for a Nov. 19-20 NATO summit.

French reshuffle set to stick to trusted heavyweights