Sarkozy tasks Juppe to repair French image
Updated: 2011-03-01 07:46
By Catherine Bremer (China Daily)
PARIS - French President Nicolas Sarkozy is betting on one of the country's most tested politicians to restore credibility to French diplomacy at a crucial time for relations with North Africa and his own popularity ratings.
Sarkozy, who faces a pasting from the left if he runs for re-election in 2012, named veteran conservative Alain Juppe as foreign minister on Sunday after Michele Alliot-Marie quit over her bungled handling of the Tunisia crisis.
An experienced technocrat who was a deft foreign minister in the 1990s, Juppe is a smart choice to repair the damage done by Alliot-Marie - who was being flown to Tunisian resorts in the jet of a friend of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali while protesters below were battling to oust him.
France's image is key for Sarkozy today, not just because of the unrest spreading across North Africa, but also because he needs voters to see him shining on the world stage as leader until November of the G20 and G8 economic powers.
Juppe - prime minister in the mid-1990s under former president Jacques Chirac who called him "the best among us" - will add weight and know-how to French diplomacy.
That is vital as Western powers club together to decide what action to take with Libya and figure out how to build new relationships with transitional governments.
While opposition politicians grumbled that Alliot-Marie should have been fired sooner, French media blasted Sarkozy for not mentioning Alliot-Marie in his prime-time speech and instead implying that the ministerial switch was entirely due to the changing landscape in North Africa.
"Alain Juppe's return to center stage after Fillon was in fashion last year, reveals a clear trend: Sarkozy has no leadership left on the right and will struggle not to be replaced by a successor," the weekly Marianne said in an online editorial, referring to France's Prime Minister Francois Fillon, whom Juppe will easily upstage.
Sarkozy's popularity ratings have floundered around the 30 percent mark for months. Economic gloom and his clash with unions last year over pension reform have weighed, as has a wide perception that he is too flashy and frenetic.
As recent polls showed people were fed up with Alliot-Marie, Sarkozy's ratings slipped in tandem. One survey, found 59 percent of respondents did not want him to run in 2012. In another, two-thirds of respondents had a negative view of him.
As well as public anger over Alliot-Marie, whose parents did a property deal with the same businessman friend of Ben Ali during the family holiday, Sarkozy has come under fire himself for France's diplomatic shortcomings.
A group of diplomats published an open letter in the daily Le Monde laying into Sarkozy's conduct of foreign policy and saying his short-term approach based on advisors like Chief of Staff Claude Gueant had led to an amateurism that was eroding French influence.
A close aide to Sarkozy, Henri Guaino, penned a livid response the next day in the same newspaper, indicating the president had been stung by the criticism and adding fuel to speculation he would replace Alliot-Marie.
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