France's prime minister hits ground running after brief inauguration

Associated Press • May 17, 2007 at 10:33 AM

PARIS - France's new prime minister hit the ground running - literally.

After a brief inauguration where he promised to "assure an eminent place" in the world for France, reform-minded conservative Francois Fillon turned up in shorts at the presidential palace for a jog with his new boss, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The hour-long run showcased the vigor France's new leadership wants to project after 12 years under Jacques Chirac.

Fillon was putting together a revamped Cabinet to make good on promises of change and restored pride for the economically sluggish nation.

The new Cabinet, to be announced today, will be likely be slimmed down to about eight men and seven women, including at least one minister from the opposition left. Many of those thought likely to head ministries met with Fillon at his office Thursday.

Among them was popular leftist Bernard Kouchner, a co-founder of the Nobel Prize-winning Doctors Without Borders medical charity. Kouchner, who could become foreign minister, was the first U.N. administrator for Kosovo in 1999-2000.

During the campaign, Sarkozy promised a break from the Chirac era of sluggish growth, failed reforms, mounting debt, persistent unemployment and riots in poor neighborhoods where many African immigrants and their French-born children live.

Several Chirac-era veterans, however, met with the new premier Thursday, including Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Labor Minister Jean-Louis Borloo and former Health Minister Xavier Bertrand.

Former Prime Minister Alain Juppe appeared poised for a political comeback, with speculation that he would be chosen to head the Ministry for Sustainable Development - newly created to help fight global warming and other environmental threats.

Juppe, who for years was thought to be Chirac's preferred successor, was convicted in a party financing scandal in 2005 and was barred from holding office for a year. Sarkozy has said battling global warming will be one of his priorities.

Fillon, 53, is known as an efficient four-time minister skilled at negotiating difficult reforms. He comes across as a cool-headed man of the shadows compared to Sarkozy, a media-savvy operator who once said his biggest defect was that he was "in a hurry." Sarkozy is likely to be far more involved in the daily operation of government than Chirac.

At a brief ceremony in which he took over from outgoing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Fillon echoed Sarkozy, promising to defend the heritage and identity of France and keep the nation together while pushing through change. "In a world of 6 billion people, the 60 million French people must remain united," he said. "I will respect all of the commitments we made." Events moved quickly after Sarkozy took office Wednesday and flew to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On Friday, he will visit struggling European aircraft maker Airbus, which plans to shed some 10,000 jobs, a hot issue in the presidential campaign. Sarkozy has many detractors on France's left. Angry youths clashed with police shortly after his victory; there have already been a few peaceful street protests against him; unions say they'll call strikes if they feel he is watering down France's labor protections. Sarkozy, elected May 6, has sought to ease concerns, meeting union leaders and saying that he wants to include people from outside his political camp in his government. For Socialists, Kouchner's expected appointment as foreign minister would be a blow. Fillon has led several reforms, including tough changes to retirement benefits in 2003 as social affairs minister, and ending the monopoly of France Telecom. As education minister from 2004-05, Fillon led a reform of the baccalaureate college examinations system that drew huge protests. Sarkozy plans to put big reforms before parliament at a special session in July, including making overtime pay tax-free to encourage people to work more. He also wants to make it easier for companies to hire and fire workers, make it tougher for immigrants to bring their families to France and curb the ability of unions to cripple the country with strikes. The future of such reforms hinges largely on whether Sarkozy's conservative Union for a Popular Movement party retains its parliamentary majority in legislative elections next month.

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