The farce of Sarkozy's reshuffle and the crisis it cannot hide

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A mediocre theatre of shadows

The questions that have filled the news coverage over recent weeks illustrate a system without substance, one that excites the closed salons of Paris chattering classes but which have no true interest for the country at large; with his new hairstyle, had Jean-Louis Borloo1, tipped by some to replace current Prime Minister François Fillon, adopted the look of a potential prime minister? Did Fillon accompany the president during his last official visit and does that signify that he has a chance of staying in his job?

It is all a staged show, directed by Nicolas Sarkozy in order to attempt a get-out of the deep social crisis that has now openly flared up with the pension reforms protests. That crisis will not end with the recent adoption of the pension reform bill, and it is increasingly shaking the regime in power, one that is also stained by the Karachi and Bettencourt scandals (with the Wildenstein affair waiting in the wings).

François Fillon and Jean-Louis Borloo, the two main actors of this theatre of shadows, are as mediocre as the script. Who could, for one moment, pretend that they incarnate policies of any real political sensitivity or significance?

The milestones along Fillon's professional path show him to be a follower of Séguin one day, of Chirac another and of Sarkozy the next. Since 2007, he has accepted without protest every humiliation inflicted by the Elysée - and there have been many! Others would have resigned, but he has submitted to them all, showing himself capable of the most extraordinary bending of the backbone.

With regard to Jean-Louis Borloo, battalions of spin doctors could be employed to conjure up an appearance of a man who carries an interest and sensitivity for social policies, but their best efforts would be entirely in vain. His close links with Bernard Tapie, a former client of Borloo's when he was a lawyer, have seen him lobby behind closed doors in favour of his multi-millionaire friend during his legal battle with the Crédit Lyonnais bank. Yet he was presented to us as someone close to the humble and poor of this world.

In truth, the reshuffle is already pre-announced as a derisory and pathetic event, and some on the Right are worried about it. Among business leaders - who are hardly usually prepared to make public their views but who have become concerned by the current crisis surrounding Sarkozy - these include his old friend Martin Bouygues, head of the French construction giant Bouygues, and Henri de Castries, head of the Axa insurance group.

Another indication of the malaise was the thunderous outburst by former French Prime Minister (under Jacques Chirac) Dominique de Villepin, a longstanding bitter rival of Sarkozy within the UMP party, who on Sunday November 7th told French radio station Europe 1: "I say that Nicolas Sarkozy is today one of France's problems […...] and it is time to close the political parentheses that we have lived with since 20072." Two days later he was back on the attack: "Nicolas Sarkozy is not my problem, he is one of France's problems, which means that we are no longer in an anti-Sarzozy period, we are beyond 'Sarkozy-ism'", he told news radio station France Info.

Of course, one could see this outburst as one nourished by a fury towards the president who remains Villepin's main rival. But there is more to it than that. Let us put aside for a moment the jealousy and internal wars within the UMP party. If possible, let us forget Villepin's dashing Bonapartist style on the international stage, and the less flamboyant one that is muddled regarding internal policies. Dominique de Villepin sums up the feeling of urgency which, for diverse and sometimes contradictory reasons, is sweeping the country both Left and Right.

"Nicolas Sarkozy is today one of France's problems," he says and that is indeed what transpires from the social crisis and the state scandals that have engulfed his presidency, and what is expressed in the waves of strikes and demonstrations that have swept France these past weeks.


1: Until the November 14th re-shuffle, Jean-Louis Borloo, 59, was Minister of State, and Minister for Ecology, Energy, Sustainable Development and Fisheries.

2: Nicolas Sarkozy was elected as president in elections held in May, 2007.


English version: Graham Tearse

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This article, originally published November 10th, was updated on November 14th following the announcement of the formation of a new French government under Prime Minister François Fillon.