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Sarkozy goes on TV to defend new government and conservative agenda

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has defended his new government to the French people in a televised interview. Though facing record unpopularity, Sarkozy maintained that some ministers still have his trust.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy defended the reshuffle

Facing record-low approval, French President Nicolas Sarkozy used a televised interview Tuesday to defend his reorganized government and his conservative agenda to the French people.

The French president also renewed his call for global financial reform on the heels of a G20 summit in Seoul, where he took over the group’s leadership.

"We can no longer stay in this monetary mess … We need a new international monetary system," he said, confirming that China would host a conference on the matter in early 2011 "to see if we can move forward.”

Reshuffle defended

A major portion of Sarkozy’s interview on three French TV channels focused on his reappointment of French Prime Minister Francois Fillon and changes made to his cabinet.

Sarkozy had quite some explaining to do, with one opinion poll on Monday showing 64 percent of France already mistrusted the new government.

Sarkozy rebuilt his cabinet this past weekend, firing several center-right and left-leaning ministers and filling their posts with faithful allies. Sarkozy also gave the cabinet a trim, leaving 31 ministers where there had previously been 37.

Fillon too popular to be ousted

Sarkozy told his interviewers that Fillon was still "the best prime minister for France.”

"When I asked Francois Fillon to continue, it's because I have great trust in him, because he's very competent, because we've worked together for years without a cloud," Sarkozy added.

In reality, Sarkozy had little choice but to reappoint Fillon, whose approval ratings far outshine the president’s. A recent poll showed 71 percent of respondents preferring Fillon to Sarkozy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, right, with French Prime Minister Francois Fillon

Many say Sarkozy resents Fillon's popularity

Other ministers in Sarkozy's favor were allowed to remain in office. Sarkozy said it would have made no sense to replace Economics Minister Christine Lagarde and added that, for others, the swap would mark a "new stage.”

"A certain amount of stability helps to soothe a country that is in need," Sarkozy said.

A new ‘campaign team’?

Sarkozy's restructuring aims at creating a team more likely to get behind his deficit-cutting austerity agenda and securing support for the upcoming presidential elections in 2012.

But the president denied criticism that his leaner, more conservative cabinet was "a campaign team" ahead of France’s 2012 presidential election.

"I remain convinced that we must be open," he said. "This is not a partisan government; this is a tightened government."

Sarkozy said his reshuffled government would remain in place until the 2012 presidential elections, adding that he had not yet decided whether to throw his hat back in the ring for a second term and would not announce his decision until late 2011.

Sarkozy had first signalled in March that he intended to rebuild his cabinet – a plan he confirmed in July. The reshuffle came after months of intrigues and mass street protests against Sarkozy's unpopular extension of the base retirement age from 60 to 62 years.

The president’s approval rating continues to wane, having hit 35 percent this month. Still, the president remained strongly behind his unpopular pension reform and his controversial expulsion of illegal Roma residents, adding that he had no regrets concerning inflammatory remarks he made linking immigration to delinquency.

Segolene Royal

Royal called the president a 'liar'

Harsh criticism

Opponents on Tuesday took advantage of the president's ever-slipping popularity to criticize Sarkozy. President of the centrist Democratic Movement Party, Francois Bayrou, slammed Sarkozy after the interview for talking too much about himself and too little about the problems facing the French people.

"There wasn’t a word about education, nor was there a word about the environment, and there was no credible strategy to revive production in France," Bayrou said.

Socialist former presidential candidate Segolene Royal also attacked Sarkozy after his interview, calling him "a president weakened by his failures" and "discredited by his lies" - the greatest of which, she said, was the claim he had not yet decided to run for reelection.

Author: David Levitz, Sarah Steffen (dpa, AFP, Reuters)

Editor: Tony Dunham

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