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Europe

Shuffled to the Top

Rising French political star Nicolas Sarkozy has been strengthened in this week's shuffling of President Jacques Chirac's cabinet. Now finance minister, some observers think Sarkozy could soon be named prime minister.

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Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy: Soon to be prime minister or perhaps even president?

French voters, upset over painful economic reforms, gave Chirac's government a strong rebuke by rejecting conservative candidates from his UMP party in last month's regional poll. The resulting victory for the left wing caused Chirac to shake up his cabinet on Wednesday, sacking a number of ministers and reorganizing the portfolios of others.

Aside from deciding to hold onto his embattled prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the most important changes to the leadership in Paris involve Nicolas Sarkozy, previously interior minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the former foreign minister.

De Villepin will take over at the Interior Ministry for Sarkozy, who will now head the powerful Finance Ministry. Of the two moves, the far more interesting for French political observers is the boost for Sarkozy.

As the country's most popular conservative politician, Sarkozy will now be responsible for pushing forward and explaining the government's unpopular economic reforms. He will also have to tackle France's sluggish economy and its chronically high unemployment, which is over 9 percent.

Taking up his new job on Thursday, Sarkozy made clear he was wasting little time. "The key words will be growth and employment," he said. "That's what's expected from us. We need results."

Whether Sarkozy's popularity will translate into support for the government's changes to the pension and welfare systems remains to be seen. Although he has had broad public support for law-and-order initiatives as interior minister, cutting welfare benefits and liberalizing the economy can be dangerous politically in France.

European elections loom

The 49-year-old Sarkozy worked in the 1990s as budget minister, when public opposition to a tough reform course helped topple then Prime Minister Alain Juppé. He will have until this summer to make use of his increased profile to reinvigorate the French conservatives ahead of elections for the European Parliament. However, even if the left wing again triumphs, it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing for the new finance minister.

That's because the ambitious Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian refugee, would be a top contender for Raffarin's job, if Chirac felt compelled to sacrifice the prime minister because of a poor showing in the European elections. Some political observers think Chirac could also be attempting to dampen popularity of Sarkozy, who has made no secret of the fact he would like to replace Chirac as president in 2007.

"It will be hard for Sarkozy to push through reforms. Maybe Chirac has tripped him up. It is a test for Sarkozy," political scientist Mariette Sineau told the Reuters news agency.

Frankreich Villepin - Reaktionen Saddam Hussein Festnahme

Dominique de Villepin

And that could leave Chirac confidant de Villepin waiting in the wings.

Though at first glace it might appear the former foreign minister was demoted by being sent to head the interior ministry, in Parisian political circles the move is being seen as an expansion of his competencies.

A career diplomat, the law-and-order portfolio as interior minister is likely to give de Villepin more depth, potentially making him a potential contender for prime minister if either Raffarin or Sarkozy stumble.

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