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Sarkozy reshuffles government after vote disaster

But he is facing more pressure from planned strikes today. -AFP

Tue, Mar 23, 2010

By Rory Mulholland

PARIS, March 23, 2010 (AFP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy sacked one minister and reshuffled his government after a humiliating defeat by the left in regional elections, but faced more pressure Tuesday from planned strikes.

Sarkozy replaced Labour Minister Xavier Darcos with Budget Minister Eric Woerth in a key change as the increasingly unpopular president limbered up for contested pension reforms.

But France's unions have joined forces to organise strikes in dozens of cities Tuesday to protest unemployment, wages, the high cost of living - and plans to change the pension system, the next major government reform project.

The minor reshuffle also saw Francois Baroin, who had served as a minister during Jacques Chirac's presidency, taking Woerth's job. His appointment has been seen as a bid to appease the centre-right members of the party.

Sarozy also appointed a new youth minister and a new junior labour minister, fine-tuning his government after voters punished his rightwing UMP party in the polls.

The second round of ballots on Sunday left the UMP in charge of only one of the regions of mainland France and Corsica in the last ballot-box test of Sarkozy's popularity before the 2012 presidential vote.

The results were "a big wake-up call for quick and effective action" to tackle unemployment and other effects of the economic crisis, the president's chief of staff Claude Gueant told AFP.

Tensions also surfaced within the governing party, with former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin calling for a confidence vote on the president's reforms after the opposition Socialists roundly beat it at the polls.

Meanwhile, supporters of one of Sarkozy's most bitter rivals within the right, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, said he would form a political party to challenge the president in 2012.

Sarkozy was elected in 2007 on promises to boost France's economy and get people back to work, but last year's recession has driven unemployment up to 10 percent, its highest level in a decade.

The next big hurdle on his agenda is a plan to raise retirement age and reform the generous pensions of some public sector workers - measures that looked set for tough resistance even before Sunday's defeat.

The controversial pension reform, one of the issues at the heart of Tuesday's strikes, is likely to be a major political flashpoint for Sarkozy's government in the coming months.

The Socialist-led opposition beat the UMP by around 54 to 36 percent in the vote, according to the interior ministry, leaving the UMP in control of only one of France's mainland regions, the right-wing stronghold Alsace.

The far-right National Front won more than nine percent of the vote overall, confirming a comeback for the anti-immigrant party.

Sunday's result was another blow to a president whose personal approval ratings are at an all-time low and will likely increase pressure within his own party for a change of direction.

An Ipsos survey published Monday found that 58 percent of respondents did not want Sarkozy to run for president again in 2012, against 33 percent who backed a second candidacy.

The poll of 952 people was carried out on Friday and Saturday by Le Point magazine.

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