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Chiracs conservative party humiliating electoral defeat { March 31 2004 }

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March 31, 2004
Chirac Reshuffles, and Upends, His Cabinet

PARIS, March 31 — Desperate to recover from a humiliating electoral defeat, President Jacques Chirac of France turned his cabinet upside down today, putting the flamboyant foreign minister in charge of law and order and the law-and-order interior minister in charge of the economy.

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

The cabinet shake-up came three days after President Chirac's conservative party was brutally defeated by the left-leaning opposition in regional elections and a day after he decided not to fire his unpopular prime minister, Jean Pierre Raffarin.

The announcement was made without comment from the steps of Élysée Palace this evening by a midlevel official who read off the names of the appointments, which take effect immediately. Mr. Chirac will explain his decision in a live joint interview with two national television channels on Thursday evening.

The most dramatic and immediate impact of the shift will be twofold: a tonal and possibly substantive change in France's 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 both Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who becomes interior minister, and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who becomes finance minister, positioning either of them to move into the prime minister's post later.

The shake-up was immediately criticized by the left. Julian Dray, the Socialist Party spokesman, called it "worn down before it even gets started," adding that "the same policies will be implemented."

The lead editorial in this afternoon's Le Monde, the country's most respected newspaper, was scathing in criticizing Mr. Chirac's decision not to fire Mr. Raffarin. "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, Dominique de Villepin enraged the Bush administration with his relentless criticism of the American-led war and occupation in Iraq and struggled to implement a new activist, romantic vision of the world in which France would regain the centrality it lost long ago.

Counterintuitive as it may seem, his appointment as interior minister is a promotion. He will be responsible for the country's security and law and order from the local to the national level, elections, international and domestic terrorism and immigration policies, including the integration of France's Muslim and Arab communities into French society.

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

That means that the 50-year-old Mr. de Villepin, who served as Mr. Chirac's chief of staff before becoming foreign minister, moves to the center stage of French politics. For a midsized country like France, foreign policy is considered by the people as something of a side-show.

Mr. de Villepin's replacement, Michel Barnier, 53, is a European Union commissioner and France's former minister of the environment. A lifelong Gaullist politician, he has long and 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 there, Mr. Barnier has extensive foreign policy experience in dealing with European regional issues but virtually none in dealing with the United States or the rest of the world.

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

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

"I am making 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."

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who replaces Francis Mer, who was fired, will be expected to reinvigorate France's weak economy, reduce unemployment (which hovers at 9.6 percent) and push through unpopular structural reforms of France's economy with the same vigor he brought to cracking down on crime, terrorism and illegal immigration. endsum

As the country's most popular politician of the right (even outstripping Mr. Chirac) and one who wants to be president one day, Mr. Sarkozy makes himself 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.

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

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

Mr. Sarkozy, 49, was passed over for the job of prime minister when Mr. Chirac was re-elected 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 Alliot-Marie and Justice Minister Dominique Perben, stay in their jobs.

The Socialist-led leftist opposition won all but one of the country's 22 metropolitan regions and all four overseas territories in Sunday's elections, the first time in French history the Socialists have ever done so well in regional elections.

That result was a wake-up call for the center-right government of Mr. Chirac halfway through his term, and the cabinet shake-up reflects his desire to do something — but something short of dismissing Mr. Raffarin.

Mr. Chirac continues to enjoy a comfortable majority in both houses of Parliament, insuring that his policies will continue to be put into effect.

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

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