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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

President Nicolas Sarkozy Of France

Nicolas Sarkozy, who was sworn in as France's new president on Wednesday, has already started shaking things up.

He has offered cabinet posts to several senior Socialists who campaigned against him. Most spectacularly, he is expected to appoint Bernard Kouchner, a former health minister and the founder of the Nobel Prize-winning organization Médecins Sans Frontières, as foreign minister, people close to both men said.

Kouchner has long ranked among the most popular French politicians, but his Atlanticist outlook is well-known and he was one of the few influential figures in France who did not oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"Nicolas Sarkozy prepares a ministerial big bang," read the main headline of the right-leaning newspaper Le Figaro on Tuesday.

On Thursday he is expected to appoint François Fillon, a former social affairs minister who oversaw a controversial pension overhaul in 2003 and has good relations with labor unions, as prime minister.

The 15 other ministers are expected to be appointed as early as Friday and will include at least seven women, one Chirac ally, two centrist politicians and possibly another Socialist.

Sarkozy has already met with leaders of the biggest labor unions to discuss his plans for economic change and on Tuesday started consulting with opposition leaders.

After an unabashedly rightist election campaign that earned him a reputation for blunt language and controversial proposals, Sarkozy's determination to govern with former foes surprised many officials and analysts, who referred to his initiative alternately as wise and Machiavellian.

Sarkozy also signaled that, even though he ran on a platform that at times had nationalistic overtones, relations with France's European neighbors were high on his list on priorities. Within hours of taking over from President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday morning, Sarkozy planned to fly to Berlin to dine with Chancellor Angela Merkel.

His apparent success in persuading Kouchner, an iconic leftist figure, to join his cabinet has unsettled the Socialist Party, which is still reeling from its third successive presidential election defeat and is deeply divided ahead of legislative elections next month.

"You can't be on the left and in this government," said Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist mayor of Paris.

Kouchner's selection also annoyed some of Sarkozy's closest allies, who have had to watch the number of top cabinet openings - already cut by half in a streamlining - shrink further.

"Loyalty is not necessarily the opposite of competence," said Patrick Devedjian, a Sarkozy ally and former industry minister who now may lose out on a cabinet appointment.

Kouchner's appointment would kill several birds with one stone, analysts said. By naming a respected Socialist to the Foreign Ministry, Sarkozy would soften his pro-American reputation without compromising it.

A critic of old-school Socialists, Kouchner, 67, also represents a brand of reformist pragmatism that Sarkozy relates to. Both men are admirers of Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain.

A person close to Kouchner, who despite his popularity has never been offered a senior cabinet post in a Socialist administration, said Tuesday that it was "pretty sure" that Kouchner would accept Sarkozy's offer to be foreign minister, a post he considered to be "beyond left and right."

Kouchner was not the only Socialist to receive a phone call from Sarkozy in recent days. Hubert Védrine, a former foreign minister, could also be appointed to a ministry, the newspaper Le Monde reported Tuesday.

Anne Lauvergeon, head of Areva, the France-based nuclear energy giant, was approached for the post of industry minister and met again with Sarkozy on Tuesday. She is a former adviser to President François Mitterrand, a Socialist. Half a dozen others might end up with senior appointments below the rank of minister.

Whatever the makeup of his new government, Sarkozy's administration will look radically different from Chirac's.

The new president wants to create a National Security Council in an apparent effort to break with the tradition in which the head of state has tended to make foreign policy decisions in close consultation with only two or three advisers.

The first challenge facing Sarkozy will be to pass a controversial list of economic changes, including measures to curb union power, create a more flexible work contract and relax the 35-hour workweek by scrapping payroll taxes on overtime.

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