Mitterrand: poacher turned gamekeeper
In the past, some reshuffles had strong significance, despite the effect of the institutions created by General de Gaulle, when a new prime minister would lead a partially renewed political programme or, at least, one that has changed in its areas of emphasis.
That was notably the case under the Left. That said, one of the greatest failures of the Left while in power, and which they are still paying for, was to submit to the institutional system established under the Fifth Republic. Mitterrand himself, after having denounced with flair the "permanent coup d'état", scandalously profiteered from the powers afforded him when he himself was president, between 1981 and 1995. During his two terms in office, there were indeed many ministers who illustrated the backbone bending he once wrote of.
There were also, however, a few exceptions. The government led by Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy between 1981 and 1982 had very different policies to that of his successor Laurent Fabius in 1984. Similarly, when Mitterrand appointed Michel Rocard prime minister in 1988 it was a symbolic appointment that announced a new political direction (at the time described as "ni-ni", or nor-nor - neither privatisations nor nationalisations).
The same can be observed, at certain periods, under the Right. There have even been reshuffles when, without any change to the prime minister, economic policies have been given a clear change of direction. President Jacques Chirac's first government, beginning May 1995 and led by Prime Minister Alain Juppé, introduced policies that embodied Chirac's election promise to reduce the "social divide", by raising the minimum wage and increasing the limits of a "social solidarity" wealth tax (which caused and still causes the ire of the business world). The second Juppé government, the result of a reshuffle in November 1995, took on a quite different character, with its policies focussing on deficit reduction. It is worth noting also that the former Gaullist Right held a number of currents in its midst, from that of Philippe Séguin to that of Edouard Balladur, which were led by personalities who were not tamed by their participation in government.
Thus it is that 'Sarkozy-ism' is the caricature of a system that is, in itself, already a caricature. He could not care less about the democratic breath-taking and reflection, real or apparent, that a reshuffle offers. Meanwhile, among the leading groups of his ruling UMP party there is no debate about political orientation, about the urgent issues facing France and there is no inter-ministerial debate. Everything happens as if those close to Sarkozy are nothing more than puppets in a show, bouncing around to a script.