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Sarkozy to rally French behind Act II of reforms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to seize on a surprise boost in the polls to launch Act II of his reform drive on Monday, giving a keynote speech to parliament before reshuffling his cabinet.

world Updated: Jun 21, 2009 08:06 IST

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is to seize on a surprise boost in the polls to launch Act II of his reform drive on Monday, giving a keynote speech to parliament before reshuffling his cabinet.

In a first under France's fifth republic, Sarkozy will address both houses of parliament gathered in a wing of the Chateau de Versailles, seeking to rally them behind his economic and social project and his vision for Europe.

Buoyed by the right's strong showing in European elections, Sarkozy's poll rating has surged to between 45 and 48 percent, its highest in a year, giving the right-winger a welcome burst of oxygen half way through his five-year term.

Pollsters link Sarkozy's current honeymoon -- which they warn could be short-lived -- to his UMP party's EU election gains, his own dynamic stint at last year's European presidency, and even a knock-on effect of US President Barack Obama's high-profile visit to France.

France's left-wing and centrist opposition are in disarray after faring dismally in the EU polls, and million-strong protests over Sarkozy's tackling of the crisis have all but fizzled out, opening a rare window of opportunity.

"Voters are not likely to protest the moment he opens his mouth. He has a chance to say he is pushing ahead with reforms, without setting off alarm bells," said Jean-Daniel Levy of the CSA polling institute.

Sarkozy's address in Versailles follows a constitutional reform -- passed by a wafer-thin margin last year -- which makes it possible for the head of state to appear before parliament, a small revolution in French politics.

Angry to be marshalled out to Versailles for what they see as a public relations exercise by Sarkozy, Green and Communist lawmakers are boycotting the speech but the Socialists agreed -- after considerable wrangling -- to attend.

From the hot potato issue of pensions to streamlining regional government, Sarkozy is set to revive several reform projects mothballed while he battled a combination of unpopularity and economic woes.

Eager to boost his green credentials after French environmentalists took a surprise 16 percent of the vote in the June 7 European polls, he is also set to announce a raft of new measures on the environment.

But political analyst Stephane Rozes says the key challenge is for Sarkozy to convince voters the list of reforms add up to form a "coherent" vision, as he positions himself for re-election in 2012.
"Sarkozy is in a position of strength. But the French people still want to know where he is taking them, what France will look like at the end of his presidency," Rozes said.

One of Sarkozy's UMP rivals, the party's leader in parliament Jean-Francois Cope, has publicly urged him to "chart the way out of the crisis," and there are rising concerns in his own camp over spiralling budget deficits.

Sarkozy's central election pledge, to boost French jobs and wages, was quickly forgotten as the economic crisis set in last year.

"His challenge now is to build a strong narrative for the end of his presidency," argued Rozes.

An opinion poll published on Saturday gave Sarkozy a 33-percentage point lead over his main socialist rivals Segolene Royal and Martine Aubry, with 21 and 19 percent respectively, if the first round of presidential elections were held on Sunday.

The president's Versailles speech will set the scene for a minor cabinet reshuffle, to be announced late Tuesday or Wednesday, which is likely to pursue his strategy of recruiting left-wingers and ethnic minority figures.

Rachida Dati at justice -- the first Arab woman to hold a cabinet post -- is one of two ministers stepping down to take up seats in Brussels and Strasbourg, along with Michel Barnier at agriculture, providing the cue for the reshuffle.

But according to a senior UMP figure, the president sees the EU election results, in which his UMP took some 28 percent of the vote, as a strong sign of support for his current team.

Elysee insiders predict marginal changes, with Prime Minister Francois Fillon and other heavyweights -- Christine Lagarde at finance, Brice Hortefeux at labour -- to stay behind the wheel.

Official statistics this week brought Sarkozy's government a ray of hope, predicting the recession gripping the French economy, the worst for 60 years, might ease at the end of the year.

But until then his economic team faces a tough year-end, with tens of thousands of French workers set to swell the ranks of the unemployed as dozens of industrial layoff plans linked to the crisis kick in.

First Published: Jun 21, 2009 08:04 IST