Weakened? Sarkozy has other plans

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Many observers have interpreted the recent French government reshuffle as a sign of weakness on the part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On the contrary, argues Mediapart editor François Bonnet, the president has prepared a savvy tactic for re-election.

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Many observers have interpreted the recent French government reshuffle as a sign of weakness on the part of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. On the contrary, argues Mediapart editor François Bonnet, the president has prepared a savvy tactic for re-election, partially revealed in his appearance on French television Tuesday evening.

"Fillon keeps Sarkozy", was how French daily Libération summed up the event. It believed that the re-appointment of the outgoing prime minister, to a background of yelping cries of protestation from a handful of ostracised centre-right politicians, along with the reshuffle-triggered 'raid' of Jean-François Copé to become head of the ruling UMP1, was the proof that a weakened president had been made the ward of some kind of political court.

A less dramatic interpretation was that the reshuffle was the manifestation of new power balances aimed at reducing, or setting the boundaries, to an all-powerful presidency that is both muddled and now unpopular.

But just consider this: could it all be quite the opposite? Nicolas Sarkozy himself has just given the demonstration that it is indeed quite the opposite, by according himself one and a half hours to explain himself on three French television channels simultaneously on Tuesday evening.

This is a road map for his bid for re-election in the presidential elections due in May, 2012.

His TV performance, for which there is no precedent following a French ministerial reshuffle, however limited that proved, came well before the presentation of government policy that François Fillon is due to make before the National Assembly (parliament) next Wednesday.

It is already quite apparent that nothing has changed. The speech that Fillon will give before parliament has been prepared and written by the Elysée, which has also closely watched over the constitution of the new ministers' staffs.

We are led to believe that there is an incredible change in the system organised around the all-powerful presidency. It is suggested that there is some significance and truth in the observation that Claude Guéant, himself an all-powerful general secretary of the Elyséé Palace, no longer talks directly to the media. Fillon, we are led to believe, demanded this and got satisfaction. Proof, therefore, that the prime minister's office is now emancipated, to the detriment of a weakened Elysée Palace.

But this sweet story will be blown apart in the weeks to come. There is a substance behind Nicolas Sarkozy's devouring ambition. He knows what is going on amid all the various movements and currents of the Right, and his successful election to the presidency in 2007 amply demonstrated that he knows how to build long-term electoral strategies.

This new political presentation should be taken for exactly what it is; a hosing-down of the record to date of President Sarkozy, and the introduction of a sweet-smelling candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, capable of winning the second round of the next presidential election in 2012.

That does not involve discussion about the government of France, nor about the policies for the next 18 months. All of that is of no importance because the principal interest is the election campaign that was launched on Tuesday evening. It needed four conditions to be met, and they have been.

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1: Jean-François Copé took over as general secretary of the UMP (Union for a Popular Movement) from Xavier Bertrand, appointed labour minister in the reshuffle. Copé enjoys little favour from Sarkozy.

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